New Zealanders trapped in India as travel ban lifts amid widespread disruption to flights

Charlie Dreaver for RNZ

New Zealanders who are stuck in India are pleading with the government to help them get home.

The travel ban on India lifts today, but those eligible to return home are finding it impossible to get flights.

Up to Sunday, 131 people - 106 of which are from India - have booked themselves into MIQ facilities from countries deemed "very high risk".

However, a managed isolation and quarantine spokesperson said not all of them would arrive here.

"It is highly likely that many of these returnees will not arrive in New Zealand because of the widespread disruption to flight schedules, particularly from India to destinations where many returnees from there currently transit en route to New Zealand," the spokesperson said.

Ninety-one of those 131 people are permanent residents or temporary visa holders, which means unless they have a partner, are a dependent child or parent of a dependent child who is a New Zealand citizen, they will not be able to enter the country.

New Zealand citizen Uppkar Kashyap travelled to India for his father's funeral and to support his mother and grandmother.

His return ticket was booked for the 24 April, but then the travel ban kicked in.

"I booked my flight for 30th [April] but now Emirates, they have stopped their flights and they have banned all travellers coming from India, they are not even allowing us to do the transit, so I feel like I'm stuck here," Kashyap said.

His wife and two young daughters are still in New Zealand and his wife Teagan's maternity leave ends soon.

He had been staying inside and regularly getting COVID-19 tests in case he has a chance to return home.

"If the flights people or government say 'we can make the flight for you guys to come back home' I can do whatever they want.

"If they want me to get a COVID test, I'm doing it already. Everything we can do we are doing but we want to come back home to our families."

Other people spoke to RNZ on the agreement of anonymity, due to fear of repercussions.

One man had a wife who went over to look after her sick father, but her return flight was cancelled.

Despite being a travel agent he had not been able to secure a flight for his wife and was now worried about how they would pay the bills because her holiday pay had run out.

A pregnant permanent New Zealand resident said her doctor told her to fly back to New Zealand where it was safe, but she is no longer eligible.

"I understand their concerns but at least spare us who are pregnant and need to come back for the sake of my health and my unborn child's health," she said.

All those interviewed said they understood the need to keep New Zealanders safe, but they wanted the government to give them flight options to get home.

A long haul to get back

House of Travel chief operating officer Brent Thomas said getting back from India was very difficult, even if someone was eligible under the new criteria.

"There's certainly no direct flights and the traditional routes through places like Australia are certainly no longer able to happen," Thomas said.

"Typically one of the options for people coming out of India will be on Qatar through Doha, however, there's a limited number of availability there and it's certainly a bit of a long haul to get back to New Zealand."

Global travel rules were changing with just 24 hours notice and over time, requirements through transit countries were going to become even more complex, he said.

"As we go through this further down the track are they going to require vaccination proof? Are they going to need saliva testing before departures? All those sorts of things are going to come into play over the coming weeks and months."

With COVID-19 deaths now surpassing 200,000 in India, the New Zealand government has committed to giving the Red Cross $1 million to assist with the crisis.

However, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade said they were not currently offering repatriation flights for New Zealanders stuck there.

Instead, it urged New Zealanders in India to register on SafeTravel so they had up-to-date advice and information.

Government cannot 'guarantee' NZers' return from India - PM

Jacinda Ardern said images coming from India were "absolutely devastating".

But there were no plans for repatriation flights at this stage, she told Morning Report.

"Early on in the pandemic, we as a government did arrange charter flights in order to get as many citizens and permanent residents out of India, in order of about 3000."

However, commercial flights began operating thereafter. But flights from India have been suspended now.

She said the government was waiting to see if commercial flights resumed; Cabinet had not yet "had a chance" to discuss it.

"We will keep watching what the situation is on the ground, what happens with those commercial flights, but at this stage, we don't have plans to put in charter flights to bring people out."

Ardern said it was about assessing the risk and urged people wanting to return to look at the vaccination and eligibility criteria.

"We cannot always guarantee that we can bring people back.

"We may not be able to go in and rescue people. They need to make sure they take every precaution they can even when they are travelling in desperate circumstances."

Reiterating the PM's words, Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson told Morning Report it was a very difficult situation with travel from India.

"We're fulfilling our responsibilities under the Bill of Rights to make sure that citizens and their families can return here but obviously this is a very difficult and challenging situation for people who aren't citizens but want to come back here and we just encourage them to look at their options and find a way through.

"There are no plans in place at the moment for a repatriation flight. There are still commercial flights leaving India."

Citizens can return directly, but permanent residents or visa holders must spend at least 14 days outside of very high-risk countries before flying to New Zealand.

"We continue to have the humanitarian categories ... that people can apply to if there are very particular reasons for them needing to get home."