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Indian expats tell of struggle to return to Australia, Hong Kong and Kuwait amid Covid-19

  • Indians are one of the world’s biggest expat communities, with more than 17.5 million of them living abroad and visiting India for leisure or work

  • More than 4,500 people of Indian origin want to return to Australia while thousands more are waiting to head to Hong Kong, Japan, and Singapore

Australian IT analyst Mehul Patel’s daughter turned one this month, but he could not celebrate this special milestone with her.

His wife and their baby travelled from Melbourne to the western Indian city of Rajkot in October last year for a six-month stay with her family. But they have been stuck there since March, when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared a Covid-19 lockdown with barely four hours notice, and banned all international commercial flights to and from India.

“I have lost the crucial part of my daughter’s growing up phase, I don’t even know if she would recognise me,” Patel said.

Indians are considered to be one of the world’s biggest expat communities, with over 17.5 million living in several countries as citizens, permanent residents, or on work, study or dependent visas. But when the Indian government closed its borders in March, those who were in India were stuck, separated from their families and lives in their country of residence. India has recorded over 3 million coronavirus cases, the third highest in the world after the US and Brazil, making it even more difficult to travel. More than 4,500 people of Indian origin are waiting to get back to Australia while thousands more are trying to return to Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, Kuwait and other places.

In May, the Indian government started its Vande Bharat Mission (VBM) to repatriate people, using national carrier Air India, which is US$7 billion in debt. There have so far been 1,982 outbound flights taking a total of 162,840 passengers to Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, the UAE and US, among others. Meanwhile, 1,987 inbound flights have brought home 362,106 people, and the latest phase of VBM is expected to repatriate over 130,000 more. These flights are not easy to get on. Indians have taken to social media to complain of exorbitant ticket prices and not being able to book flights online as they sold out quickly. When Air India announced it would start flying to Australia in June, Patel, along with four friends, used different computers to try and book a ticket for his wife and daughter, but were not successful. “I have failed to book it four times so far,” Patel said.

On June 28, Australian citizen Rohit Keswani, a corporate security adviser, bought a ticket for a July flight from New Delhi to Sydney for 91,000 rupees (US$1,210). Before the coronavirus pandemic, it would have cost around 33,000 rupees (US$440), but he said it was “nothing short of winning a lottery as tickets were sold out instantly”. Indian civil aviation ministry spokesman Rajeev Jain said the problem of tickets selling out quickly was mostly during the first phases of the VBM and “things are easing out” now. He added that tickets are booked online in a “transparent manner”.

People also complained about not receiving refunds for flights that are cancelled. On August 17, Hong Kong banned Air India flights

from New Delhi for two weeks after 11 people who arrived on a flight three days before tested positive for Covid-19. Air India has not yet reimbursed those booked on later flights.

Sales manager S Jain is waiting to get back the 120,000 rupees (US$1,600) he spent on three tickets. “For booking my ticket again on another flight when Hong Kong reopens, I would have to shell out money from my pocket again because there is no hope for a refund any time soon,” said Jain. He is one of an estimated 2,000 people waiting to get back to Hong Kong. The civil aviation ministry spokesman admitted that “Air India is under deep debt”, but assured passengers that it “will surely refund all those who are entitled to the refund”. Keswani, who was supposed to fly to Sydney on July 17, said Air India phoned a number of passengers about 18 hours before departure to check if they still wanted to fly. But he did not make the shortlist, and is still awaiting a refund.

“I had no clue how Air India could pick and choose passengers who already have confirmed tickets,” he said.

Air India did not respond to a request for clarification on this matter.

There were also complaints that travel agents were hiking the prices of confirmed tickets. For instance, agents charged 93,000 rupees (US$1,240) for a ticket from Delhi to Tokyo that originally cost about half that.

In July, Air India said passengers booking tickets through travel agents for VBM flights should not pay more than the fares mentioned on its website, but the overcharging continued.

Keswani said people were blocked by Indian Minister of Civil Aviation Hardeep Singh Puri on Twitter after they complained about exorbitant ticket pricing or malpractice by agents. “This shows that they know the problem but they are neither willing to listen to us on public platforms nor act to stop the malpractices.”

In response, Jain, the civil aviation ministry spokesman, said, “I am hearing this for the first time. I don’t believe this.”

Patel believed the Indian government is “minting money” from stranded Indians “to revive the dying national carrier”.

The ministry said Air India had to cover flight operating expenses and was charging a “just and fair” ticket price.

“We are planning to get into bubble agreements with more countries, people will have more options soon,” Jain said, adding that the Indian government is working towards “resolving” the Hong Kong flight ban.

But Hong Kong permanent resident Babbly Dhillon, who is currently stuck in India, said she felt like an “orphan” because neither the Hong Kong nor Indian governments were offering to help her.

Some have suffered financial losses in their desperation to get back to their country of residence.

One of the stranded Indians, who is on a dependent visa in Hong Kong, said she joined a WhatsApp group where a Hong Kong resident promised to organise a chartered flight for HK$19,000 (US$2,450) for two tickets. But the flight, first arranged for June and then August, never got permission to take off and more than 230 passengers are supposed to get refunds.The lawyer representing the organiser claimed refunds have started to be made, after a deduction for operating and administrative costs of HK$275 per ticket.

Over 1,000 Indian expats are also waiting to return to Japan, even though the country started allowing long-term and permanent residents and their dependents to re-enter from June.

In May, Japan imposed an entry ban on all overseas travellers. Over 700 stranded Indians signed a petition in June seeking help from the Japanese government, which was submitted to various ministries and embassies. Initially, permanent residents were allowed back in. “Later, names of people separated from families were cleared by the Embassy of Japan on humanitarian grounds,” said Anurag Mahant, an engineer visa-holder in Japan, who finally left for Tokyo on August 21, after five months in India.

Japan is likely to reopen its borders in September for non-Japanese residents holding valid visas. And the country’s flag carrier, Japan Airlines, has started operating flights to India in addition to Air India. As the number of Covid-19 cases went up in Melbourne in July, Australia reduced the cap on international arrivals from 8,000 to 4,000. In Sydney, a city with more than 870,000 Indians, only 50 people per flight each day were allowed to enter.

Keswani said many people of Indian origin are being called “virus carriers” in Australia because of India’s high number of Covid-19 cases.

“But we are taxpayers too and the Australian government needs to prioritise us as well as anyone else in a similar situation,” he said.

Patel also complained that there has been very little help from the Australian High Commission in India.

A spokesperson for Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade confirmed to This Week in Asia that there are “currently no plans for Australian government-facilitated flights out of India”.

Parikshit Ujwal, an Australian citizen who worked for a finance company in Sydney but lost his job in June and is stuck in India with his family, wrote to his local MP requesting him to “take necessary steps to help residents return home”, but so far nothing has happened. “I don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. I don’t have a job, my child doesn’t know when he can go back to his school,” Ujwal said.

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Originally published: https://www.scmp.com

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