Australians stranded in India say they’re “holed up” in their homes and “fearing for our lives” as COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc across the subcontinent.
The Australian citizens on Friday gave the distressing evidence to an Australian parliament Senate committee hearing, where they pleaded with the Morrison government to return home.
The Morrison government banned all flights from India until May 15 due to the country’s escalating coronavirus threat as hundreds of thousands of new daily COVID-19 infections were recorded.
The ban carried the threat of criminal sanctions, including five years in jail and fines of up to $66,000 for people who try to return.
But there was some encouraging news on Friday after a national cabinet meeting, where Prime Minister Scott Morrison confirmed the ban would end on May 15.
The first Australians to be able to return from India will be those deemed “most vulnerable” by the Australian High Commission in India after a meeting of national cabinet.
One Australian, Sunny from Melbourne, said he’d been trying to get a flight home for the past 11 months.
He has been unable to return since flying up to see his dying father in May last year.
“It’s been 11 months of misery and I’m still stranded in India,” he told the Senate committee on Friday afternoon.
“To make things worse, my area is experiencing a tsunami of COVID infections. We are living on a street where 60 to 70 per cent of the homes are COVID infected – in some cases entire families are COVID infected.
“We stay holed up in the house in fear of our lives on a constant basis.”
Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade officials also told the Senate there were 173 Australian children stranded in India.
Sunny feared it was “only a matter of time” before he and his ill elderly mother – also an Australian citizen – would contract the devastating virus.
“People are dying on the streets from a lack of oxygen,” he said.
“The Australian government should not abandon us in life-threatening situations.”
Sunny’s first cancelled flight was a repatriation Air India flight in July last year.
He then paid nearly $10,000 for two one-way tickets on a Japan Airlines flight to Sydney via Tokyo for April 20 of this year – but that was also cancelled.
He told the Senate he was “very disappointed” to hear about a loophole in the travel ban that allowed two Australian cricketers to return on a flight from Doha without any special permission or exemptions.
“We would have boarded our flight on the same day,” Sunny said.
Another Australian, Meg, was made redundant in late 2019 and flew to India for a two-month break at the start of 2020 but has not been able to return home.
She said she only had two days notice to fly back to Australia on the eve of an impending lockdown but told the Senate she was in a remote village where it would take at least three days to travel to any major airport.
“People are just depressed – literally just so depressed about the situation,” she said.
“Every time you make an effort to make a booking (for a repatriation flight) and don’t get a seat you just get so emotionally down and depressed.
“Every time I have tried to call the Australian High Commission to ask for help the phone will just ring out no matter how many times you call, no one literally answers.”
Deaths rose by a record 3780 during the past 24 hours in India, with daily infections rising by 382,315 on Wednesday.
The number has been in excess of 300,000 every day for the past two weeks.
Mr Morrison confirmed three flights from India would arrive in Australia once the temporary travel ban ended on May 15.
All three flights would land in the Northern Territory, and passengers would quarantine at the Howard Springs facility.
Direct commercial flights would still be paused once the ban on travel from India ended.
Instead, the commonwealth asked the states to accept additional repatriation flights and the quarantine measures that followed.