A BENDIGO family is facing continued separation from their young son after the federal government turned down their application to retrieve him from overseas.
In early April, the Department of Home Affairs rejected Sheethal Thomas and Juby Kalliyattu's request for an exemption to travel to India, before the country's case spike and the Australian travel ban.
It's been more than 18 months since the pair saw their son Dev, now three.
They say it's been hard to watch cricketers coming and going from India, while unable to reunite with their son.
While safe with his grandparents, Dev is showing signs of stress from the long separation.
Ms Thomas and Mr Kalliyattu had taken Dev - an Australian citizen - to India for his christening in November 2019.
Mr Kalliyattu returned to Australia earlier than his wife and son. He was taken ill immediately afterward, so Ms Thomas also returned to Australia, leaving Dev with his grandparents. They planned to bring the child home in December 2019.
Ongoing illness delayed that plan until March 2020. But when Ms Thomas and Mr Kalliyattu went to book flights, border closures and soaring flight costs prevented them.
Ms Thomas said they decided to wait before retrieving Dev, so they could save for the flights, now several thousand dollars one way, and quarantine expenses. She said they also wanted to receive the vaccine first, so they would be doing the right thing.
Mr Kalliyattu said it was March 2021 by the time they applied for a travel-ban exemption for Ms Thomas to travel to India to retrieve Dev.
He said it was a complete surprise when the government turned their application down.
They received notice of this in early April, before the current crisis.
"We thought it was going to be an easy exemption, because it was straightforward: we want to join with our little one," Mr Kalliyattu said.
"We could see that cricketers from Australia were going to India ... so we thought it shouldn't be an issue for a mum to get united with her child."
Ms Thomas said the rejection was a huge blow, leaving her in shock for weeks.
Dev was 20 months old when his parents left him in India. Now more than three, he's spent the time with Ms Thomas and Mr Kalliyattu's parents, both in the south Indian state of Kerala.
But Mr Kalliyattu said it wasn't easy for Dev's grandparents to look after him, as they were all elderly. He said they were having to send him between their houses, four hours apart, to share the load.
Ms Thomas said Dev was showing signs of distress from separation anxiety, with a doctor advocating for him to return to his parents as soon as possible.
It has been a difficult journey for the parents, being separated from their child for so long.
Ms Thomas said it was like a part of her son's life was gone forever.
She recalledon a recent Facetime call with her son, she asked if he would come back with her if she came to get him. In response, he tried to climb into the phone.
Ms Thomas said it was hard to accept that she could not leave Australia to reunite with her son when tennis players and performers had travelled into Australia from all over the world in recent months.
She said they understood the need for a border closure, but expected more repatriation flights for vulnerable Australians as a priority.
"We are more than happy to comply with all government regulations in terms of quarantining, to keep the Australian community safe," Ms Thomas said.
"We don't want to endanger the community, but we just want to be with our child."
The federal government has indicated it is on track to restart flights from India on May 15.
But Australian citizens could be forced to wait months to return home, because of the nation's quarantine capacity.
The Department of Home Affairs has been contacted for comment.
Federal member for Bendigo Lisa Chesters declined to comment. The Bendigo Advertiser understands Ms Thomas and Mr Kalliyattu have received a letter of support from her office.
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