As India hits record daily coronavirus infections and Australia squabbles over bans and repatriation flights, another devastating number has been revealed.
At least 170 unaccompanied children are among those Australians stranded in the virus-riddled country as it struggles to contain its second wave.
It comes after “heartbreaking” evidence was submitted at a Senate COVID Committee on Friday from parents of children who are stuck overseas – some for close to two years.
At the COVID hearing, new figures from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade showed a rise in the number of Australians wanting to return home.
Lynette Wood, first assistant secretary with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, said of those Australians in India, approximately 9500 are stranded and want to return home. Of the 9500, 950 are classed as vulnerable.
But what struck a chord for many was the 173 children who are stuck in India without a parent or guardian to return them home. The ABC’s Stephen Dziedzic described it as a “big figure”.
The vulnerable include “173 clients registered as under 18 in India outside a family group – that is, they’re on their own and seeking to return to Australia”, said Ms Wood.
It is believed most of the minors are accommodated by other family members.
Some parents appeared and gave devastating accounts of being away from their children.
Harjinder Singh Mandair was among those, who told the committee he had been separated from his four-year-old son since September 2019.
“His sister is here with us and every now and then we have a video chat with him but it’s not up to that mark when the kids are in one house, in one family and they play together and get to know each other,” he said.
“All those affections and connections a brother and sister should have are not happening.”
Professor Paul Kelly said the government will assess the situation but currently, unaccompanied minors are not allowed to return home on Qantas flights. The only way home are repatriation flights which aren’t scheduled until May 15 when the travel ban lifts.
“I have children myself and I can imagine this would be a difficult situation for any parent,” Professor Kelly said.
“However, we will need to look at those on an individual case-by-case basis as we have done right throughout.
“We’ve had many other unaccompanied minors come from many countries around the world.”
High Commissioner to India Barry O’Farrell said the government had helped 20 children return home from India since December.
He also said Air India flights could take unaccompanied minors on flights to Australia.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison confirmed on Friday that the government’s controversial India travel ban would be lifted on May 15, paving the way for Australians to board repatriation flights.
But seats aren’t guaranteed, and Mr Morrison has been accused of leaving Australian kids behind.
Labor Senator Kristina Keneally criticised the PM, describing the separation between families as “unbelievable”.
“When my kids were young, they spent holidays with grandparents who lived overseas so they could get to know them,” she said.
“That’s what these parents have done. Then a pandemic struck, stranding their children in India. Scott Morrison has just left their kids behind.
“What kind of nation leaves its children behind in a humanitarian crisis?”
At the committee, Ms Keneally asked if the government had considered a mercy flight to pick up unaccompanied minors and return them home to their families, with Ms Wood replying: “we haven’t considered a specific flight”.