More than 200 Australian children remain stuck in India where the coronavirus pandemic continues to rage, with thousands of deaths each day.
Desperate parents have been pleading with the government to develop a plan to reunite them with stranded children.
Foreign affairs officials told a Senate estimates hearing in Canberra on Thursday there were 209 Australian minors registered to return home.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Lynette Wood denied they were unaccompanied minors because that suggested they were living alone, when most were with family members or guardians.
Senior Labor frontbencher Penny Wong said it would be hard for parents of stranded children to hear an official focus on the term.
“It’s real people – kids over there, parents here. Think about that instead of quibbling about a category,” she said.
Ms Wood said the department was working hard to bring minors home and reunite families.
Qantas does not allow children to fly unaccompanied on repatriation flights.
Since October, 70 children without parents have been returned from India, including five in the past week.
Neha Sandhu, who was previously stranded in India herself, has helped many stranded Australians find a path home.
She estimated she had helped 15 unaccompanied children get home after linking them with other stranded Australians to ensure a seat.
“As a mother, I can feel the pain of the separation,” Ms Sandhu told the ABC.
“That is the reason I’m helping people.”
But some children were simply too young to fly without their family members, she said.
Ms Wood said the department wanted to bring all children home but couldn’t give an estimate, citing changing circumstances of families.
“We’re working closely with every single family to identify the circumstances, when they want their children to come home and to find a way to do that,” she said.
Senator Wong vented her frustration after repeatedly asking for an estimate.
“People would appreciate and respect instead of a word salad, ‘no, we can’t give you an estimate’. That would be at least honest.”
Around the world, there are 35,128 Australians stranded with 4260 listed as vulnerable.
There are almost 11,000 people in India wanting to return home including 1024 that are vulnerable.
Britain, the US, Philippines and Thailand round out the top five.
Australia has facilitated eight repatriation flights from India since a travel ban was lifted in May.
Ms Wood said there would be another three flights in June, all of which are sold out.
“Of course they’re sold out. People are desperate to get home,” Senator Wong said.
But DFAT was unable to confirm how many flights would be scheduled for July. Plans are still being finalised.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne clashed with Senator Wong as she defended the government’s efforts in bringing 500,000 Australians home during the pandemic.