Marise Payne (Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

Australians stranded amid the world’s biggest COVID-19 lockdown in India are furious with the Australian government for ignoring their pleas to be airlifted home.

A concerted group effort headed by a few expatriates has seen four more flights organised to bring people home following the success of an initial charter flight using Indonesia’s Lion Air from Delhi to Melbourne on April 12. The carrier will also be used for the next group of flights from Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai.

The latter two flights will leave on March 19 and 20 respectively, at a cost of $2200 per person. 

Yet Canberra has failed to organise any flights, despite having almost 7000 Australians in India registered with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). There are fears that India, the world’s second most populous country, may yet see a coronavirus catastrophe, particularly in the major cities of Mumbai and Delhi.

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“It’s disappointing the government does not care about our wellbeing,” read one post on an Australians in India WhatsApp group. “Our government has been proven to be totally useless so far,” read another.

The Australian reports today that India is top of DFAT’s priority list for returning stranded Australians from overseas.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has extended the country’s lockdown, initially set at three weeks, to May 3. A number of states had instituted lockdowns ahead of his original announcement. The death toll in India has officially reached 377, with at least 11,000 infections, though the country has tested relatively few people.

The lockdowns are creating headaches for Australians trying to get to major cities to catch flights home. Many travellers heading for these international airports have to cross at least one, possibly several state borders. The Indian government is arresting people who travel by private car, and with domestic flights cancelled, charter buses have to be organised by people at a local level.

There is also the issue of exclusion zones being implemented in a growing number of COVID-19 hotspots across India, more than 250 of which are now in the Mumbai alone.

The Australian High Commission (AHC) is issuing travel passes but some people have found this is not enough, with greater permission required by some states for transit.

A number of Australians in India who spoke to Crikey said that the AHC’s advice had been “very confusing over recent weeks, at one stage advising people to book fares on planes that were later cancelled due to airline imperatives or the government lockdown”.

In a self-congratulatory Facebook post on April 13, Foreign Minister Marise Payne said: “The Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Canberra and posts in many countries are working hard to assist Australians overseas to return”.

The short list of repatriations she is now taking credit for includes “444 Australians on a private charter flight from India for which our High Commission provided extensive logistical support and advice, and obtained necessary approvals in complex circumstances”.

This is despite DFAT clearly saying only last week that there were no charter flights available out of India, that it does not “endorse” the flights and even pointing out Lion Air’s safety record.

An Australian tourist helping to organise a bus to travel from the state of Goa to Mumbai 600km north said he was “hoping for some assistance from the AHC”, but the commission seems to have “not included the Consulate General in Mumbai in the loop” about the new flight.

The Morrison government’s efforts to help Australians stranded offshore have been embarrassed by a raft of other nations helping their citizens around the world — including Germany, which is conducting a €50 million program of repatriation; the United Kingdom, which has four flights to Goa this week alone; as well as Finland, Bulgaria and many others

The government of Poland has coordinated use of national carrier LOT Polish Airlines for 388 flights to bring 55,000 people home from around the world. Poland have also permitted national of other European nations to board its planes and to collect their nationals once planes have landed in Europe.

Only a handful of government backed flights have been organised by DFAT to repatriate Australians including three from South America — where there are far fewer Australians than in other hot spots.

Unlike may other countries, including significantly-less-wealthy Brazil and India, the Australian government is forcing its citizens to pay for their flights, even to the extent of providing loans to those that do not have resources for the $2000-plus fares.

The government has not fully co-opted either Qantas or  Virgin Australia. Both airlines are seeking massive taxpayer-funded bailouts. Reports have suggested that Qantas has struggled to find staff willing to man charter planes due to the risk of crew catching COVID-19 on recent flights.

Meanwhile, Crikey understands that Canberra has been in negotiations with Qatar Airways — a partner in the One World alliance of airlines, where Qantas is founding member — for flights from India to Doha and then onto Australia.

DFAT continues to advise that “the government strongly urges all Australians who wish to come home and who have access to commercial or charter flights, to do so now, without delay”.

The  problem is now, from India and an increasing number of destinations popular with Australians such as Thailand, there are no flights to catch — only charters that the government appears more reticent than most to help organise.