More than 200 Australian children are 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 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 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.
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.
The United Kingdom, United States, Philippines and Thailand round out the top five.
Australia has facilitated eight repatriation flights from India since a travel ban was lifted last month.
Ms Wood said there would be another three flights this month, 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, with plans 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.