There has been a sharp increase in the number of Australians stranded in India who are suffering financial distress or health problems.
- Australia has used a Qantas plane to send more COVID-19 supplies to India this morning
- It is currently a criminal offence for Australians to return home if they have been in India in the past fortnight
- The ban will remain in place until at least May 15
Around 9,000 Australians stuck in India have registered with the federal government to say they wish to return home.
The government has also been facing rising anger from some Indian Australian community groups after pausing flights from India until May 15 and then subsequently announcing a travel ban with penalties including five years in jail and fines of up to $66,000.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has played down the chances of anyone being hit with those penalties and has signalled that flights are likely to resume in mid-May.
But Australians stranded in India remain deeply anxious about when they will be able to get home, as the country’s COVID catastrophe continues to rage.
Australia’s High Commissioner to India, Barry O’Farrell, told the ABC the number of Australians classified as “vulnerable” by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade had shot up in the past week.
“Disturbingly, over the last week the number of people classified as vulnerable has increased from 600 to 900,” he told the ABC.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has not said precisely how it defines who is “vulnerable”, but it factors in both the health conditions and financial circumstances of those who are stranded.
Mr O’Farrell also emphasised the government’s promise that it would prioritise vulnerable Australians for chartered flights when they resume.
“We operate within the rules set by whoever is in power and … we look forward to the resumption of flights so we can assist the 900 Australians who are vulnerable to come back home,” he said.
While one Indian opposition politician has criticised Australia’s flight ban, Mr O’Farrell played down any risks to the bilateral relationship.
“India understands that national governments will take decisions which reflect their priorities to keep their citizens safe,” he said.
Meanwhile, a government-chartered Qantas flight departed for India this morning carrying more than 1,000 ventilators and dozens of oxygen concentrators which will be used to help health authorities fighting to contain the spread of COVID-19.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne said: “India has shown great leadership and generosity to the world in exporting vaccines globally.”
“It is time for the world to repay that generosity and Australia as a close friend of the Indian people is playing its part,” she said.
Mr O’Farrell said the supplies would be distributed to hospitals across the region, and at least one more assistance flight would come from Australia carrying aid.
He also said four Australian diplomats at the High Commission had contracted COVID-19 over the last year but emphasised that all of them had recovered.