209 Australian children still stuck in India without parents

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The number of Australians seeking to come home from India has increased over the past month and there are now 209 children stuck there without their parents.

Around the world, there are 35,128 Australians registered as wanting to return, including 4260 classified as vulnerable.

Department of Foreign Affairs secretary Frances Adamson says diplomats have a “steely determination” to reunite children stranded in India with their parents.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

In India, there were 10,998 Australians seeking to return, with 1024 classed as vulnerable, Department of Foreign Affairs officials told Senate estimates on Thursday.

These numbers have risen since the previous update in early May, when there were about 9500 Australians in India seeking to return, including 173 children without their parents. Since that time, about 1200 people have returned on government-facilitated repatriation flights.

Officials said 70 unaccompanied children had returned from India on facilitated flights since October, but there were only five children on the three flights that landed last week.

“It’ll take a long time to get people home,” Labor senator Penny Wong said.

DFAT secretary Frances Adamson said diplomats had a “steely determination … to reunite or bring those children to the place where their parents want them to be”.

“These children are not living alone, if you like, in India,” she said. “They are being supported within families and decisions are made in broader extended families about where children should be.”

Foreign Minister Marise Payne said some of the children registered had arrived in India in 2020 or even this year, some had never been to Australia and others had arrived there as far back as 2008.

Since Australia’s India travel pause lifted on May 15, eight government-facilitated flights have arrived from India and there are another three scheduled before the end of June. Those three flights went on sale on Wednesday night with 150 seats each and were already full by the time officials appeared before the committee on Thursday morning.

More flights were planned beyond the end of June but the government was yet to approve them, DFAT official Lynette Wood said. She couldn’t say how many flights were planned for July.

The Australian government organised for a public health expert to travel to India to check Qantas’ pre-flight testing arrangements for the repatriation flights after 70 passengers were blocked from boarding the first plane to leave after May 15.

Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly recommended sending the expert to work with Qantas to revise their “bubble” and testing arrangements in New Delhi. All passengers are required to return a negative COVID-19 nasal swab and rapid test before they are allowed to travel to Australia.

Ms Wood said she learned the laboratory contracted to run the test results had lost its accreditation from media reports the day after the flight landed in Australia. Qantas has since changed the lab it uses.

She said officials had contacted each of the passengers blocked from the first flight but could not say how many had since returned to Australia.

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