Long road home: Stranded Indians in Australia

By Indira Laisram
Prashant Pandey, founder of Let's Go Back Home, with his wife

Melbourne-based Prashant Pandey was all set to go to India for the birth of his first child when COVID-19 took the world by storm. A desperate Pandey wanted to be in India at any cost and the pursuit to find ways and means of travelling back to India led him to set up a Facebook page Let’s Go Back Home.

Pandey was surprised and overwhelmed by the number of people who were in the same predicament and those who wanted to go back at any cost. These included students, parents who were visiting their children here, tourists and some others who were on temporary work visas.

The Facebook page has not only helped people share their angst as also information, it has led to the setting up of a WhatsApp group so people could support one another. “It was a personal motivation and people started joining me and when people lay their hopes on you, you do get motivated to do something more. So, I started gathering information and passing on to people,” says Pandey.

In the early days when the COVID 19 crisis began, Pandey, an IT professional, created a form for people to register themselves and give their name and area. “I got around 11-1200 registrations,” he says.

For stranded Indian nationals from Australia, Air India began special operations from Thursday, May 21, to various cities in India, an operation which will end on May 28

There are thousands of Indians stranded in Australia as a result of COVID-19 as countries sealed their borders.

It has been a huge relief for Indian citizens in Australia when the government of India announced a phased repatriation of its citizens stranded abroad.

Air India began special operations from Thursday, May 21, to various cities in India, an operation which will end on May 28.

One of the passengers lucky to be on the first flight was *Sunita (name changed) who was in Australia on a three-month tourist visa. She was set to leave before the expiry of her visa on March 15 but found herself stuck due to the current crisis. Sunita survived on the kindness of friends and finally left on May 21 through the Air India repatriation flight to Delhi.

However, for the not so lucky ones, it has been an anxious wait and a mad scramble for that coveted seat back home.

The office of Consul General of India (CGI) office in Melbourne has been inundated with calls and emails. “We are experiencing a large number of queries with every possible emotion. The queries vary between request for repatriation, to change of departure and landing port, queries for quarantine requirements, last minute changes, missed the registration form or urgent request such as death in the family or medical emergency,” says Prabhat Sangwan, Media, Culture and Education officer at CGI. But, adds Sangwan, “The CGI here is not issuing any forms. It’s directly handled by the High Commission of India in Canberra and Air India.”

Inside the Air India flight back to India

Kavita, whose visiting sister got the opportunity to travel to Bangalore on May 23, says, “There were four different forms that had to be filled up. Step 1, they ask you to register as an Indian citizen on the form which is there on the website of the CGI Melbourne, in step 2 they send you a Google form to repeat the same details/info and, step 3 they ask you to fill up an Indemnity Bond Form. Next, you get a confirmation letter from the High Commission. After that, you will receive a call from Air India for booking of tickets.”

However, Sangwan says that it is a mandatory requirement for every Indian passport holder to register himself/herself with the nearest Consulate/Embassy/High Commission when they travel abroad “It is a condition mentioned in their Indian passport. That’s why we tell everyone to register with us always, so that if we have any communication we can let them know, or if there is any emergency with them here, we can contact their family back home.”

During this Covid-19 pandemic, the Consulate emailed all those who registered to fill up the Google form as it was centralised for all over Australia. “This form was for the entries when the government announced that the repatriation flights were starting”.

According to the High Commission, the number of seats on the flights being limited. Only “passengers with the most compelling cases are being given priority”.

The crux is to continuously follow up and explain how bad you need to be in India with all your valid proof

For those who can’t get back immediately, it is a difficult situation. “We know families where the father has lung cancer and he can’t get the medicines here, even if they are available, they are extremely expensive and with nothing coming by post,” says Kavita.

As of now, there are no separate flights for the patients who require urgent medical assistance. “The only flights are these seven flights flying from May 21 to May 28. In case of a death in the family, they can contact us and provide documentary evidence. All the passengers travelling to India will be compulsory quarantined for a period of 14 days,” says the Consulate.

Meanwhile, in social media platforms, anxious travellers have complained about absence of loop-back and airline helplines not working.

“I guess it’s really difficult given the volumes. We got the email from Air India in the afternoon before my sister was to fly. So, it might look uncertain initially, but you do get notified eventually,” says Kavita.

The key is to regularly check emails. As Melbourne-based Siddarth says, “An acquaintance was lucky to find his flight from Sydney to Delhi. He followed up with the embassy in Canberra regularly on email and phone. That’s how he got through. He was stuck here since April. He booked a train from Melbourne to Sydney and got hotel accommodation for 4-6 hrs. So, the crux is to continuously follow up and explain how bad you need to be in India with all your valid proofs.”

Melbourne airport

But there are few others who have chosen to avoid the mad scramble. “You have no idea where they are going to accommodate you when you reach India and how much it will cost,” says Santosh, whose parents are in Melbourne.

All passengers will need to undergo a 14-day mandatory quarantine on arrival in India in quarantine facilities as per the protocols framed by Government of India. All passengers on arrival in India will be medically screened and would have to download and register on Arogya Setu app.

For the moment, people like Pandey are expanding their platforms to provide immediate mental and material support to those stranded. “Medical emergencies, getting a house on lease till you are able to leave the country, these are the sort of issues that are very tough. There was a family who had saved money for almost 5-10 years for a foreign trip and they got stuck here with unforeseen expenditure. And if at that point, you tell the people nothing will happen, they are bound to feel very stressed and depressed. These are stories from the connections I have formed with the people.”

To streamline information, Pandey conducts a zoom session with a select group with complex situations where Mr Raj Kumar, the Counsel General of India in Melbourne comes on board to support Indian visitors who are stranded in Australia.

In the meanwhile, Pandey has put in a request for free extension of visas. Currently, an extension of a visa costs 400$, a steep price to pay for a family. However, as the entire slot for phase one of the repatriation flights has been booked out, it is a waiting game for those whose names are left out.  Yet, there is a spark of hope that phase two will happen soon as Dr S Jaishankar, Indian External Affairs Minister has tweeted that Australia, along with Europe and Canada need more flights.

A pandemic makes co-operation and support on all levels all the more necessary.

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