‘Rejected and betrayed’: Australians stranded in India speak of heartbreak

·8-min read

The backlash has been fierce in the days since the Australian government moved to make it a criminal offence for its citizens to return from Covid-ravaged India.

Members of the Morrison government have denounced their own policy, while medical experts and international human rights groups, including the United Nations, have called for an immediate reversal of the Biosecurity Act determination.

Related: Australia’s India travel ban: how other countries are managing their returning citizens

On Wednesday, one citizen challenged the law in the federal court.

However more than 9,000 Australians remain stuck in India in a situation that Australia’s chief health officer has acknowledged could kill them.

Here are some of their stories.

Shruthi and Vamshi Parepalli – stranded in Hyderabad

Melbourne man Vamshi Parepalli had been desperately trying to get an exemption to allow his mother, who is not an Australian citizen or permanent resident, to enter Australia during the pandemic to be with him and his wife Shruthi.

After repeated applications were turned down, Vamshi and Shruthi applied for exit exemptions instead, which were granted by the Australian Border Force, so they could travel to care for his mother in Hyderabad.

Related: Australian man launches legal challenge to India travel ban, as number of vulnerable citizens rises

They arrived in December, before the current outbreak, but Vamshi is furious that the information he provided about his mother’s condition was enough for his exit exemption but not enough for her to be allowed to travel to Australia to stay with them.

“I am fighting an avoidable war. I would have been happily living in Australia amidst this second wave in India if my mother was given exemption,” Vamshi said.

Now the three of them are stuck in the middle of India’s devastating outbreak.

Vamshi, 32, fears for his family’s safety if they contract Covid. His in-laws and one of his uncles has contracted coronavirus, and his aunt died from the virus recently.

Now Vamshi, who is worried he will lose his job if the ban is extended, is running out of money and is trying desperately to get his mother vaccinated to protect her from the outbreak.

“I’m am just breathing heavily through my mask, which now covers both my face and my future.”

The government needs to know the pain we are in

Vamshi Parepalli

Vamshi moved to Australia in recent years and has permanent residency, but after the Australian government’s determination to make returning to Australia a criminal offence, he is reconsidering his feelings about his adopted homeland.

“It’s like your mother denying your existence. I have bought a house, put all my savings and built my life there.

“The government needs to know the pain we are in.”

The couple want the government to establish both a long-term quarantine facility, as well as a short-term quarantine site, possibly Christmas Island, to accept arrivals from India immediately.

“How can it be criminal to return to our home? To be honest, I feel like it was a dream when I got my residency and stepped into Australia, and now it looks like it really was just a dream.”

Ramana Akula – stranded in Chennai

Ramana Akula and his family
Ramana Akula (second from right) with his wife and two sons at the Grampians in Victoria. Akula, who has lived in Australia for 30 years, flew to India for an urgent work issue in January. Photograph: AAP

Businessman Ramana Akula flew to Chennai four months ago, in January, for an urgent work issue, when the Covid situation in India was very different.

Akula, an Australian citizen who has lived in Australia for 30 years, said he planned to stay for three months – and that this was in fact a requirement that the Australian government gave him when he applied for an exemption to leave the country.

He said when he first heard that he could be criminally charged if he returned, he thought “it must be a prank or something”.

He said he was frustrated, because he had spent years telling Indian people that it was a “misconstrued perception” that Australians were racist.

“I want to be the guy that says, ‘Australia is the best place to live’,” he said. “Now they’re like, ‘What the hell are you talking about? You can’t even go back home.’”

Paramjit Khare stranded in northern Punjab

Paramjit Khare, who lives in Penrith in Sydney’s west, flew to India to be with her parents on 1 March. As an only child, she needed to travel to help her elderly parents with a range of medical issues that had arisen recently.

Khare is scathing of the government’s determination to make it a criminal offence to return from India.

“I know the government’s concern is for their citizens, but it’s heartbreaking, we are also citizens. If someone needs to come home you can’t make them feel like a criminal.”

She was granted an exit exemption by the Australian Border Force after submitting medical documents from her 79-year-old mother’s doctor about her worsening neurological condition.

She was planning to return this week, but now has no clue when she will return to her husband and 10-year-old son. Her prolonged absence is also wreaking havoc on the restaurant she runs.

Every day my son asks me when I will be coming back and I have no answer for him

Paramjit Khare

“Every day my son asks me when I will be coming back and I have no answer for him.”

While she understands public health advice backed up the move, she believes there would have been less restrictive methods available to minimise the risk from India – something the Biosecurity Act requires government to strive for – had the commonwealth built quarantine facilities when they were first called for last year.

She is now in favour of quarantine for Indian arrivals being set up anywhere, including on Christmas Island, or in temporary camp-like accommodation. She would even be willing to pay more money to quarantine if there were added costs.

“They can provide more quarantine facilities, we are going to pay for them, if it’s going to be an extra burden we could pay more.”

While Khare is concerned about the deteriorating situation around her, the 46-year-old has been vaccinated while in India with the locally produced AstraZeneca vaccine. But she knows this brings her no closer to returning home.

Subra Somayajula – stranded in Hyderabad

Subra Somayajula travelled to India this year to care for his mother – his only surviving parent.

“I travelled to India at the end of March 2021 with the approval of the Australian government to see and care for my mum who is at the end of her life.

“My mum was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer in 2014 and her health deteriorated immensely in the past three months – to the point that she is bed-ridden and requiring constant care. She also tested Covid-positive recently.”

Somayujula’s wife, Narita Nagin, who is in Australia, has written previously that India does not allow for dual citizenship – meaning that he gave up his Indian citizenship to become an Australian citizen.

Related: My Australian husband is stuck in India. All I want is to know he can come home | Narita Nagin

“What if India demands non-citizens leave the country or threatens them with prison sentences like the Australian government just did for its own citizens?” she wrote.

Somayujula himself said he felt “betrayed” by the travel ban.

“I feel rejected and betrayed, that my contribution to the community, my life and Australian citizenship isn’t worth much,” he said. “This uncertainty caused by the Australian government’s decision is worsening anxiety and contributing to poor mental health, not just for me but for those I am close to.”

Vishal Dhanda – stranded in Yamuna Nagar

Vishal Dhanda
Vishal Dhanda travelled to India to visited his dying father. He initially struggled to gain an exemption from Australian Border Force to travel. When he eventually did, he arrived just three hours before his father died. Photograph: SUPPLIED/PR IMAGE

Dhanda’s father, Satinder Pal, fell ill in September last year, but it took months for him to get an exemption to visit him.

“I was hoping he would get better and I didn’t need to come,” he said. “But in last few months, every single time I got a phone call from home I knew it was bad news.”

After multiple applications were rejected, he was finally approved to leave Australia when his father was “on his death bed”.

On 11 April, he travelled to Yamuna Nagar, 200km from Dehli. His father died just three hours later.

I didn’t come here for a holiday. I didn’t come here by choice. My father was dying

Vishal Dhanda

“I didn’t just do all of these things with closed eyes,” he said. “But I didn’t come here for a holiday. I didn’t come here by choice. My father was dying.

“I applied for my exemption through all the right channels. Now you’re telling me, ‘Why did you go?’”

Dhanda says he too feels abandoned by the Australian government, as it allowed tennis players and celebrities back into the country earlier in the year. He says his wife and son, who are still in Melbourne, have no idea when he will return.

“I don’t want to put anyone [at] risk, but at the same time I’m at risk as well. This whole situation makes me feel that we are nothing.”

Australian Associated Press contributed to this report.

Are you or your family stuck in India? We’d like to hear from you. Contact elias.visontay@theguardian.com.