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

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.
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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 …
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