Friday, July 02, 2021

‘We are taxpaying citizens’: Stranded Indian-Australians despair over flight caps

In early March, Aakansha Bhargava learned that both her parents had tested positive to COVID-19 during India’s deadly wave. She quickly decided to be with them and waited four days for a permit.

Just hours after her plane touched the tarmac, her father died. She didn’t get to see him in time.

Ms Bhargava has not complained much over the past few months, accepting that Australia’s restrictions meant she would need to leave her mother alone in India if she wanted to return home. But after making that difficult decision and booking her flight back for August 11, she is now worried that too will fall apart.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Friday announced a 50 per cent reduction in passengers arriving in the country until the end of the year to relieve pressure on the hotel quarantine system.

“The government had 16 months to take control of the situation, prepare more quarantine centres and upgrade their system so that they are able to handle a pandemic. [These erratic decisions] are leading to mental and emotional trauma for a lot of people,” Ms Bhargava said.

“We feel that the government is not playing fair considering we are taxpaying citizens of Australia, and they are cutting us out.”

There are already warnings that Friday’s decision will prompt foreign airlines to stop flying to Australia altogether, dealing a second blow to many Indian-Australians who were blocked from entering the country under a separate flight ban earlier this year.

Amar Singh, president of the Turbans 4 Australia charity, said this was going to create another shockwave in the community.

“People are so over waiting for these flights, and for things to happen,” he said.

“This can mean months for people stuck in India, where they’re not getting any medical or financial help. Are we just assuming they’re going to be ok? It’s very wrong.

“We need a more human approach to this. These people [are citizens], they’re supposed to be here.”

Kiruthika Prasanna and her husband Mathew also received an exemption to go to India on compassionate grounds in April, because her father-in-law was critically ill. He, too, has since died, and the couple has been trying to return home.

Ms Prasanna says DFAT had been no help - even when they offered to chaperone other families’ stranded children - while commercial flights for June to August were unaffordable, and only became more so with travel caps.

“It was approximately $11,000 per ticket. So for the two of us, it would be approximately $27,000 for tickets and quarantine. This is not a viable option for us and I believe many other Australians stranded here,” she said.

“Our whole life is waiting for us in Brisbane: our dog, house and jobs. As we both are essential workers, our employers expect us back in the office. The [repatriation flights are] not enough, and we are worried [about] when we can come back home.”

Haroon Kasim, co-founder of the Humanism Project which works with the global Indian diaspora, said it was pleased the Morrison government and national cabinet had offered a four-phase plan out of lockdown.

“We understand the national cabinet’s demands to reduce international arrivals to reduce the pressure on quarantine facilities, due to the increased risks of the Delta strain,” he said.

“However, we remain conscious that there are many Australians stranded overseas who have been separated from their families and are unable to be with their sick and dying relatives. Leaving them stranded overseas is a breach of their human rights.”

He urged the government to commit to an explicit timeline for boosting vaccine numbers and said it should have enhanced its quarantine capacity. “This would help us ensure that we are doing everything to make it safer for our fellow Australians to return home safely and reunite them with their families and loved ones as soon as possible.”

02/07/21 Natassia Chrysanthos and Michael Fowler/Sydney Morning Herald

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