India's Covid pandemic: Girl, 5, separated from family by Australia restrictions

By Tiffany Wertheimer
BBC News

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Parents with their young daughterImage source, Drisya and Dilin
Image caption,
Johannah, 5, was visiting her grandparents in Kerala state when the pandemic saw borders closed and flights cancelled

Dilin was unable to hold back his emotions when he talked about his young daughter, who he has not seen since November 2019.

"I can certainly see the sorrow in her heart… she truly misses us," he told an Australian Senate committee on Friday.

Johannah, 5, is one of at least 173 unaccompanied children who are stuck in India trying to return to Australia.

She was staying with her grandparents when the pandemic struck and borders were closed.

Johannah's parents tried to get her on government organised flights to Sydney but children younger than 14 are not allowed to travel alone on the repatriation trips.

Qantas, which operates flights between India and Australia, also does not allow unaccompanied minors, so the couple's only other option is to charter a private plane or fly with Air India. However, until recently Johannah was still too young.

Drisya and Dilin did not risk trying to fly back to India to be with Johannah because of the limited flights to return to Australia from there.

The coupled feared they would join the 9,000 people in India struggling to get home to Australia.

Drisya and Dilin were finally able to get Johannah a seat on a chartered plane from Bangalore to Sydney, with a private company willing to take unaccompanied children.

It was due to arrive in Sydney on 6 May but that flight was also cancelled when the Australian government brought in a controversial ban on all arrivals from India.

"It was our last hope, we have exhausted all options," Dilin told the BBC. "We literally fell apart. Sometimes you get a ray of hope, but then there's a set back like this," he said.

Drisya and Dilin told their story to an Australian Senate committee which is investigating the government's efforts to help stranded Australians return home from India.

Drisya told the hearing that there were seven other unaccompanied children on the privately chartered flight. The couple, who have connected with families in similar situations on social media, say many of the children are very young - some even younger than Johannah.

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"I plead, on behalf of all of them, to please consider the option of bringing in minors unaccompanied, either through repatriation flights or even private chartered flights," Dilin said.

Senior Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) official Lynette Wood said a flight specifically for children had not been considered, and that the government was working directly with families to try and bring children home. The BBC also approached the DFAT for comment on this article.

Australia's High Commissioner to India Barry O'Farrell told the hearing 20 unaccompanied minors had been helped home since December.

'Time we have lost'

The trio were living in Malaysia and visiting family in India when Drisya and Dilin left Johannah to spend a longer holiday with her grandparents in the southern state of Kerala. They went back to Malaysia and started making preparations to move to Sydney a few months later.

Image source, Drisya and Dilin
Image caption,
Johannah was due to arrive in Sydney on 6 May, but the flight was cancelled due to the Australian government's India flight ban

Their reunion was thrown into disarray when the pandemic hit and Johannah's flight home was cancelled.

As time went on, all of the flights they managed to book were cancelled, or Johannah was "bumped" - which means she was no longer able to fly, because the number of people allowed to enter Australia that day had been reached.

Johannah's Malaysian visa eventually expired, and her parents had to move to Sydney without her.

"When we can see her again she will have grown up a lot, it's that time we have lost, that we can never get back," Dilin told the Senate committee.

"What we have missed as parents is her prime childhood age… It's been almost one and a half years that we have not seen her grow," he added, holding back tears.

Drisya often finds it hard to sleep and says she cries through the night, missing her young daughter.

"I can only imagine the emotional pain she is going through now, even though we are trying to keep her happy, buying her books, but I think from the bottom of her heart, there's nothing her parents can be replaced with," Dilin said.

Media caption,

Australians trapped in India 'betrayed' by ban on returning home