Tens of thousands of Australians remain stranded overseas and are struggling to get home due to the Government’s strict limits on the number of people who can arrive in the country each week.
Although, like many countries, Australia initially told its travelling citizens to return home when the pandemic hit, after a spate of coronavirus cases detected in Government-mandated hotel quarantine, as well as a small number of high-profile escape attempts, Prime Minister Scott Morrison tightened border controls back in July.
Now, only 4,000 people are allowed to arrive in the country each week to ease the pressure on the quarantine system, but the numbers are dwindling further due to cancelled flights as airlines haemorrhage money adhering to the extreme passenger limits. Some flights are restricted to as few as 30 passengers, which has left a huge backlog of citizens trying to secure a ticket. Estimates from the organisation representing airlines that fly into Australia put the number of those trying to return at as high as 100,000.
A visit to the website Removethecap.com reveals the emotional toll of the situation, with its world map scattered with pink broken-heart icons. Each one represents an Australian citizen or permanent resident who is desperately trying to get home. Hover over a heart pinned anywhere from Manchester to Munich and their individual stories pop up. There are tales of couples ripped apart and messages from people who are stuck after visiting dying relatives. Other expats recount how they have lost their jobs or homes, with weary accounts of multiple cancelled flights and exhausted options.
The website’s founder, Dutch-born Australian citizen Pieter den Heten, felt compelled to create the map after his own experience with the hardline border rules. He has now been separated from his partner for eight months after being stranded in Germany in March.
He says: “The conversations I had with friends in Australia showed me that they weren't aware nor empathetic to the issue. I thought that by creating the map, showing them the extent of the problem and letting people tell their stories, I could change that.”
So many have spent the last few months in an uneasy limbo, dealing with both the shock and adjustments of the pandemic while being far away from home. The prolonged stress has hit Ellen, a recently married Australian who is trying to move back from Northern Ireland, hard. She and her husband’s flight to Melbourne at the beginning of September was moved twice before eventually being cancelled. They are now booked to go to Sydney next week, but the uncertainty has fuelled her anxiety and depression.
There has been a financial impact too. She explains: “My husband has had to resign three times and finished work a week ago because we have to get a negative Covid test before the flight and we don’t want to risk anything.”
She adds: “I know that others have had it way worse than us, but I just want to see my family to celebrate the wedding they couldn’t celebrate with us. “
An unfair, but inevitable, consequence of the border restrictions is that airlines are prioritising higher-spending business and first class passengers to stem losses. Qatar Airlines has admitted that they have to do this to ensure the viability of the route while keeping to the flight caps. As such, many flights are arriving with as few as four passengers in economy and there have been reports of some spending thousands of pounds in the hopes their tickets won’t be cancelled.
Although there is also an outward travel ban, Australian permanent resident, John Pabon, was granted a permit to leave and pick up his dog from Shanghai (where he previously lived), who he had not seen since January. While the dog has since made it back to Australia on a cargo flight, John has not and is now stuck in Seoul.
He says: “The airline I had a ticket with, and all others, said there were no scheduled flights for the rest of September and likely October. As of yesterday, all possible routes to Sydney were unavailable.”
While he emphasises that many are worse off than him, he says: “This is just stress piled on top of other stresses. I have a business, family, and life in Melbourne I want to get back to. In short, I want this year-long process of relocating to Australia to be over.”
Questions have been raised as to why celebrities aren’t being subject to the same restrictions. Twitter users have highlighted that Tom Hanks, who contracted coronavirus in Australia in March, is back in the country filming an Elvis biopic. Rumours have also swirled that the likes of Nicole Kidman and Danni Minogue were able to avoid the mandatory hotel quarantine, rather undermining the government’s tough stance.
Somewhat surprisingly, there is evidence that some sections of the Australian public are not wholly sympathetic to the plight of the stranded.
Pieter Den Heten explains: “What I hear and see in the media and from friends in Australia, paints a picture of intense fear. This fear has quite quickly turned against anything foreign and unknown and what is the easiest thing they can do? Right, keep them out, or at least discourage them to such an extent, that they stop trying.
“I personally believe much of this comes from the Australian Government doing what they believe the public wants.”
He points to polls that suggest a majority of Australians are in favour of even stricter measures and even full border closure.
Emphasising the extreme views he says: “The Western Australian Premier mentioned Christmas Island (an Australian territory near Indonesia) and Yongah Hill (an immigration detention centre) as a viable alternative to quarantining returning citizens. This gives some indication of the overall sentiment I reckon.”
However, due to increased organisation from the likes of Pieter and various Facebook groups and Twitter hashtags (#LiftTheTravelBan, #RemoveTheCaps), awareness and compassion is growing. High-profile politicians such as Shadow Home Affairs Minister Kristina Keneally are also now on side and lobbying the government to re-think the extreme measures. But for the Australians still trying to get home, the financial and emotional burden continues to build. And then there is also that lurking sense that the world will never be quite as open again.