After two years of being unable to hold her four-year-old son Nevaan, single mother Rajshree Patel finally has him back in her arms again.
The Australian-born toddler went to India in July 2019 with his grandparents for what was meant to be a short visit, but the COVID-19 pandemic and Australia’s closed borders made his return impossible.
Nevaan is not old enough to fly alone, and under federal government rules, only the ‘immediate family’ of an Australian citizen or permanent resident can currently legally enter the country.
The government’s rules define ‘immediate family’ as a spouse, de facto partner, dependent child, or legal guardian. Grandparents and parents don’t qualify.
, the 33-year-old said the rules made it feel like the government was “taking my heart away from me”.
After several applications for travel exemptions were knocked back, Nevaan was eventually allowed to travel to Australia with his grandmother two weeks ago.
The pair completed hotel quarantine in Darwin before flying to Sydney on Wednesday night for an emotional reunion.
“I feel so relieved. It’s like my heart is back,” Rajshree told SBS News at Sydney airport.
Rajshree became a citizen in 2018 and for the last year she has been working at a COVID-19 testing clinic in Sydney.
While she now has her son back, her father has not yet been granted a travel exemption.
The 33-year-old said more should be done to reunite families.
“All migrants need their families here for some kind of help, like raising kids and everything,” she said.
There are still 209 Australian children stranded in India, along with 10,400 citizens and permanent residents who want to return home.
That task was made harder last Friday byon commercial flights to 3,035 from next week.
Neha Sandhu, the administrator of the Australians Stuck in India Facebook page, said the repatriation process is too slow.
“Families who are stuck since the beginning of the pandemic, they are in total distress,” she said.
Tim O’Connor, impact director at Amnesty International Australia, said the federal government has an obligation to bring all its citizens home.
“We haven’t seen them increase the quarantine places that are required. There are opportunities to do home quarantine, to triage people who have been vaccinated. Those things haven’t been taken up and it’s a really serious failing of this government,” he said.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said almost 22,900 Australians have returned from India since March 2020.
“DFAT continues to work hard to assist Australians return by helping them access scheduled commercial flights within passenger caps and through organising facilitated commercial flights, prioritising vulnerable Australians,” they said.
“We want to see families reunited, but we must ensure the travel of minors is undertaken in appropriate and safe circumstances. DFAT is working with families in India and Australia to ensure the travel of children is undertaken safely. Each family is assisted on a case-by-case basis.”
It is understood five government facilitated flights are scheduled to leave India for Darwin this month.