‘People don’t care’: Stranded Australians despair

National cabinet’s decision to halve the international arrivals cap has left tens of thousands of Australians stranded overseas to deal with cancelled flights, dwindling savings and months of torturous uncertainty.

They’re also coming to terms with a deeply uncomfortable truth: that most of their fellow Australians don’t seem to care.

The reduction in international arrivals is being imposed in the name of protecting Australians. But the people stuck overseas are Australians too, and they feel as though their own country has all too happily “abandoned” them.

Many believe the government is using them as a convenient “scapegoat” for its own failures.

RELATED: Airlines warned against price gouging ahead of new caps

The arrivals cap is being halved to just over 3000 passengers per week. Picture: Christian Gilles/NCA NewsWireSource:Supplied

Online, there is a swelling community of stranded Australians giving each other support and advice. These forums are full of heart-wrenching stories.

There are people desperate to be reunited with spouses and children, or to see their dying loved ones.

Others have been stuck for so long that their visas have expired. They can no longer work, and are rapidly running out of money.

If they happen to be in the United States, where health insurance is so often tied to your job, they’re now completely uninsured.

There are pregnant women who want to give birth in Australia, but soon won’t be able to fly. There are husbands distraught because they can’t get home for the birth of a child.

Countless people uprooted their lives – quitting jobs, ending leases and booking flights home – only to find that, as a result of the government’s decisions, those flights may never take off.

You have undoubtedly heard some of these stories already. Occasionally, the most tragic ones find their way into the headlines.

The point of this article isn’t merely to bombard you with sob stories. It’s to show you the practical effect the government’s policies are having on people’s lives; and the corrosive effect they’re having on those people’s sense of national identity.

Some have concluded Australia isn’t the country they thought it was.

The empty planes

Let’s start with the background.

A week ago, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a 50 per cent reduction in Australia’s intake of international passengers, saying the move would “take some pressure off” the hotel quarantine system.

“Because of the particular virulency of the Delta strain, it is believed that is a prudent action while we remain in this suppression phase of the virus,” Mr Morrison said.

It was a stark reversal from the federal government.

“I don’t think the weekly caps should be reduced,” Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews had said just two days earlier, adding that Australia’s response to outbreaks “should not be to close down our borders”.

Ms Andrews blasted Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, who was lobbying for a significant reduction, and her Labor government.

“When they have their own failure that they can’t manage, they’re very quick to jump up and down, try and blame the Commonwealth government and then demand that borders be shut down or that caps be reduced,” she said.

“Queenslanders can see these claims for exactly what they are. They don’t stack up, they are a smokescreen, and quite frankly the Premier needs to get on with managing the state.”

But at the subsequent national cabinet meeting, Ms Palaszczuk, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews and Western Australian Premier Mark McGowan prevailed.

RELATED: Australia to cut arrivals by 3000 a week

Scott Morrison bowed to pressure from the Labor premiers and agreed to reduce the arrivals cap. Picture: Martin Ollman/NCA NewsWireSource:News Corp Australia

As they publicly welcomed the cap reduction, New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian – who disagreed with the decision – sympathised with the thousands of Australians who would now be stranded.

“My heart goes out to thousands of Australians who have to wait longer to come home,” said Ms Berejiklian.

“I have expressed this view publicly, but I have also expressed it to my colleagues: just because you reduce the number of people coming in, doesn’t mean outbreaks aren’t going to happen.

“I am disappointed that every state hasn’t done its fair share, but I appreciate and have to respect the decision of national cabinet.”

The halving of the arrivals cap means 3035 passengers will enter Australia each week instead of the previous 6070.

NSW will continue to receive half of those people, with 1505. Brisbane and Melbourne will be capped at 500 each, with a maximum of 265 allowed in Perth and Adelaide.

What does that mean on a practical level? Not only will stranded Australians find it harder to book flights home in the first place, but many of those who already hold tickets will either be kicked off their flights or have them cancelled altogether.

On Tuesday The Guardian reported the airlines have been allocated zero passengers for some flights under the new caps. That includes a third of all flights into Sydney, which means the airlines will have to rely on carrying cargo and outbound passengers to make money.

The other two-thirds of flights into Sydney will only be allowed 25-26 passengers. That limit will be 11-13 for Melbourne, and as low as five for some flights to Brisbane and Perth.

We’ve come a long way from Mr Morrison’s declaration, in September of 2020, that he hoped to have “as many people home, if not all of them, by Christmas”.

Struggling with uncertainty

Some people’s flights, usually booked months in advance, have already been cancelled.

The luckier ones might get rebooked onto an alternative flight a few months later. The unlucky ones are left to look for new tickets at even more exorbitant prices.

But even the passengers who are still notionally scheduled to come home are suffering, as they wait anxiously to find out whether they’ll actually be flying. Most won’t know for sure until a few days beforehand.

Technically, Jason Nitz is in none of these camps. He has already made it back to Sydney and is currently in hotel quarantine.

But his wife and son are still in Denver, in the United States, waiting for a flight a month from now which they suspect will be cancelled. He’s dreading that possibility.

“They’ll be homeless, without a car, and with no health insurance,” Mr Nitz said.

“We have no idea what they’ll do, given the queue of people this will affect. Without knowing how the airlines actually decide who to bump, it’s really a waiting game.

“They only have economy seats, which were over-inflated already, so it might be a case of having to pay business class fares, $14,000 each, to secure a seat. Otherwise they will be homeless waiting in Los Angeles for a seat.”

Naturally, prices have risen sharply since the cap reduction announcement. At the time of writing, business class fares from Los Angeles to Sydney were being listed for at least $20,000, and as expensive as $30,000.

I should note that different airlines have different methods for deciding which passengers to kick off their flights.

Singapore Airlines, for example, has been telling customers those who booked their seats last will be offloaded first. Another airline might cancel the tickets of economy class passengers before those in business class.

The online communities have been doing their best to figure out how each airline operates, though some remain stubbornly opaque.

Jason feels the 50 per cent cap reduction is “purely political”. He says it’s Mr Morrison’s way of appeasing a “fearful” population.

“They see people arriving from overseas, Australian citizens, as a threat. It’s sad,” he says.

“People just don’t care. Many say ‘you should have come home earlier’ or ‘you’re just bitter because your extended overseas holiday has been cut short’. Few realise exactly why we were there and the effort and planning required to come home.”

Jason Nitz with his wife and son. They’re currently on opposite sides of the world.Source:news.com.au

Anna, 23, is stuck in London. She has a flight booked for July 24, which she expects to be cancelled because of the new cap. She’s trying to get home to her family in Brisbane, where she will likely stay permanently – once she manages to get there.

“I can’t afford to stay here without a job and I desperately miss my family. My visa expires at the start of October and then I’ll be illegal as well as stranded,” she said.

“The anxiety is tearing me apart, and there are many people in worse situations than me.”

Anna has been looking for a job in Europe in case she can’t get back, so far without success, leaving her “unemployed, broke and alone”.

She’s keen to stress that, compared to others, she’s in one of the least vulnerable positions. She notes that we’ll never be able to quantify how many Australians have been “forced to stay” in vulnerable situations, such as abusive relationships, because they can’t get home.

Never enough notice

Irina Nielsen lives in Stuttgart, Germany, where she has a school-aged son. She says she’s dreamed of returning to Australia for years.

Ms Nielsen and her family previously intended to fly home last year, but decided to wait when the pandemic struck, thinking things “might improve”. They’ve now booked business class seats on Qatar Airways for August 3.

In Germany, you have to give multiple months notice to both your employer and landlord, which Ms Nielsen has done. She will have no job from the end of July and nowhere to live from early August. She’ll be unable to claim unemployment benefits for three months.

On top of that, she has already signed a lease for an apartment in Brisbane. If she can’t get there, she’ll have to pay rent for it anyway.

“At this point we have cancelled everything, and after August 3 we must find other accommodation and already pay for our Brisbane flat, which we already signed the lease for,” she says.

Ms Nielsen is already getting job offers from Brisbane, but is being forced to decline them because she can’t be sure she’ll get there.

Meanwhile, her son risks missing out on school.

Like most others I speak to, MS Nielsen stresses that her story is far from the worst.

“It was my decision and I knew the consequences. I am not the type to whinge. But what really bothers me is my child being homeless,” she says.

“I have to still pretend it’s all good and be strong to comfort him.

“I have to somehow explain to him what happened to his Australian dream.”

At present, Qatar Airways has not told her how likely her flight is to go ahead as planned. If it doesn’t, her family’s “only hope” will be government-chartered repatriation flights, which only happen at very short notice.

“They need to be planned in advance. This is the reason they have been flying half empty,” she says of those flights.

“People simply cannot drop everything, they need one or two months notice.”

Multiple people brought up the short notice they’re given for repatriation flights. Picture: Dylan Coker/NCA NewsWireSource:News Corp Australia

Jessica Barrette works for Refugee International Aid in New York, where her E3 visa is set to expire within the next month.

She also mentions the short notice given for repatriation flights, saying it renders them unworkable for many people who might otherwise use them.

“The time frame of the notice period for these flights and the test required to board them are not feasible for us to meet the timelines,” she says.

Because of the pandemic, Ms Barrette missed her aunt’s death and her father’s heart surgery.

“I am heartbroken and perplexed by the current situation and hypocrisy in Australia,” she told news.com.au.

“We somehow managed to import thousands of players and officials for the Australian Open with little to no issues, and this was when a vaccine was not as readily available, but we cannot return genuine Aussies?”

Ms Barrette grew up in country Victoria. She says she knows the importance of small and medium businesses and has empathy for business owners who are suffering from closures.

“I also have respect for the value of human life that Australia is protecting. Living here in the US with over 600,000 deaths, it is a sense of pride for what Australia has done,” she says.

“However, quotes such as those from Daniel Andrews – ‘It is better to lock some people out than to lock everyone down,’ – are not in line with the Aussie mateship I know.

“Those he wants to lock out are me, a fully vaccinated taxpaying Australian who desperately wants to meet her nephew for the first time.

“Those of us desperate to return, like me, have to watch as our Prime Minister travels the world and quarantines in a personal lodge, while I have to pay thousands for a flight and quarantine.

“I have to listen to Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk advocate to reduce the ability for me to return home to loved ones, as she gears up to travel to the Olympics.”

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk is due to attend the Olympics in Japan. Picture: John GassSource:News Corp Australia

Ms Palaszczuk’s planned trip to Tokyo for the Olympics, which will require her to take up a place in hotel quarantine upon her return, is a sore point for many stranded Australians. More than 84,000 people have signed a petition calling for her to be denied an exemption to leave the country.

Others, a little more cheekily, have suggested she should be allowed to leave but then forced to join the back of the queue to get back in, at her own expense.

Asked about the petition this week, Ms Palaszczuk argued it would be a “disaster” if she didn’t go, implying it would jeopardise Brisbane’s bid to host the 2032 Olympics. (As things stand, Brisbane is almost certain to be the host. It is expected to be selected unopposed.)

“There seems to be a common myth out there that the large majority of people wanting to come in and out of Australia are non-citizens or citizens wanting to come in and out of the country,” Ms Barrette said.

“This has been fuelled by the hypocritical visas and permissions granted to movie stars, tennis players, cricketers, football players, politicians, foreign investors and entourages to all of these groups.

“It’s missing the story of people like me, who is an Australian, who simply want to return to give my mum, dad and my niece Matilda a big hug and return home, after safe quarantine of course.”

She stresses that she doesn’t blame the airlines, which she says are “doing what they can” within the government’s limitations.

“It is not their accountability to bring Australians home, it is our government’s. Leaving us Australians in limbo, purgatory and feeling like aliens with no plan as to when we might be able to return home.”

‘Fear over mateship’

Lex Sadler moved to New York to pursue his career as a musician, and he’s been stuck there throughout the pandemic. He’s vaccinated, but still unable to fly back to Perth.

Following a previous interview with Sky News, Lex copped a backlash in the comments section, with other Australians telling him he’d “made my bed, now lie in it”.

“Disgusting. This is the culture of Australia now, one that has chosen fear over mateship. Absolutely appalling,” he says.

“The real story here is the change in Australian values, the irreparable damage to Australian culture, the very core of the Australian identity.

“I’ve heard this pandemic referred to as ‘wartime’. Well, Australia has left its soldiers behind enemy lines. If my life were in danger due to covid, being in the hot spot of New York City, wouldn’t Australia want to do everything in its power to get me out of here?”

New York was the early epicentre of the pandemic in the US, with infections peaking at an average of more than 15,000 per day. At one point the daily death toll was almost 1000.

“Think anyone from the government reached out to me and asked how I was doing?” Mr Sadley asked, who has written a piece on Medium outlining his thoughts.

“Nah. Just want to shut the door and demonise us, while they sit around sipping lattes in designer masks discussing how lucky they are.”

Gordon Chan left Sydney with “nothing but my savings” last month to reunite with his fiancee, Svetlana Chernykh, in Russia.

The couple are both 40 years old, and feared that by staying apart they could lose their chance to start a family.

He says it’s “criminal” that the premiers are “using covid as a political football”.

“It is inhumane to keep loved ones apart indefinitely,” Mr Chan said.

“This (decision) is likely to isolate Australia further from the world. The prices for flights home skyrocketed since the cap reduction announcement.

“What is going to happen when airlines decide it is no longer viable to fly to Australia?”

He calls for the government to “implement federal quarantine facilities already” to make the system “foolproof and expandable to meet demand”.

“Covid is not going away. Enough with the blaming,” he says.

“Most of the world is learning to live with covid. Maybe it is time for Australia too.”

Gordon Chan with his fiancee Svetlana Chernykh.Source:news.com.au

Alessia is another Australian in New York. It has been 18 months since she last saw her family.

“My dad underwent heart surgery and I couldn’t be there for it. I’m waiting to have my wedding, but not at all clear on when that can happen and when travel to and from Australia will become possible,” she said.

“The most emotionally difficult thing for many of us abroad is the thought that Australians believe these measures are necessary and that we ‘should have come home earlier’.

“When you have a husband, house, cat, job and friends where you live, we can’t trivialise it by saying this is about ‘travellers’, as though we are on holiday on a beach somewhere. This is about Australian expats who live overseas but are still citizens.

“It’s a very alienating experience to see your own people have so little compassion in the face of these new measures, with no end in sight.”

This is characteristic of my conversations with stranded Australians. Many feel the broader public has a misguided impression of them, as though they all decided to swan off on holiday and could have returned easily last year.

“This government simply does not care about Australians abroad. We are being used as a political tool, and the flight caps are purely political and not at all evidence or science based,” Alessia said.

“Same thing with requiring that vaccinated citizens quarantine – there is now clear evidence that it is very unlikely that vaccinated individuals transmit covid.

“We are now in a worse position than July, 2020 in terms of trying to get home, at a time when vaccines are widely available elsewhere in the world.”

She believes Australia’s “highly ineffective” vaccine rollout is to blame.

“This is the direct result of the Commonwealth government’s failure to have appropriate policy in terms of quarantine and the vaccine rollout,” she says.

“It needs to change immediately. The government needs to be reminded that expats can and will vote.”

‘Discarded. Abandoned. An outcast’

Alessia is one of several people who have lodged a complaint with the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) over Australia’s border policies.

In response, the commission has pointed to Article 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states “no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his own country”.

However, the AHRC can only make recommendations – it can’t order the government to do anything, nor can it enforce compliance with its recommendations.

“Under international human rights law, travel restrictions and quarantine can be a legitimate response to protect public health during the Covid-19 pandemic,” the commission said in a statement on Wednesday.

“However, such measures can limit the human rights of Australians, and any limitation must be no more than is reasonable, necessary and proportionate to protect public health.”

“Any Australian who has been prevented from coming home by border restrictions can face enormous hardship, including as a result of prolonged separation from loved ones.

“The national cabinet’s recent decision to halve international arrival caps will likely prevent or delay many Australians overseas from returning home. The Australian government is yet to announce how it plans to assist Australians return home in light of the cap reduction.

“Quarantine is a central part of our country’s public health response. Hence, Australia’s federal, state and territory governments must take urgent steps to increase the number of people who can be safely quarantined, allowing more Australians to return home.”

A statement many stuck Australians would agree with, but as mentioned, the commission has no power to change policy.

Repatriation flights are rare. Picture: Foreign Minister Marise Payne’s officeSource:Supplied

Erin Gregor is an Australian living in Mystic, Connecticut in the US.

She and her husband had flights to Australia booked in March of 2020, but decided the pandemic made them too risky. They “had no idea Australia would still be a fortress almost a year-and-a-half later”.

The pair subsequently had a Hawaiian Airlines flight in March of this year cancelled. Now they’re expecting an upcoming $8000 flight with United Airlines to be scrapped as well.

“I can’t believe a fully vaccinated citizen might not be able to get home to see family for $11,000 (including the hotel quarantine costs), not to mention the huge price increases caused by the government’s cap reduction,” Erin says.

“The 50 per cent cut is just rubbing salt in the wound for so many of us that feel not only abandoned by Australia, but like we’re the scapegoats for the government’s vaccine and quarantine program failures.”

The closed border doesn’t just affect Australians overseas. In some cases, it also makes life difficult for those left behind.

Dorothy Lidden, 63, married her husband Daniel in Bungendore, NSW in February of 2020. A week later he returned to his native United Kingdom, partly because of his visa restrictions.

“He was supposed to only be gone a month. That was 16 months ago,” Ms Lidden said.

“Daniel has put in 18 requests for a visa, all of which have been refused, stating that he is a risk to the Australian population.

“His story since returning to the UK has been a nightmare on so many levels.”

Mr Lidden gave up his home to come to live with Dorothy and has struggled to find places to live throughout the pandemic. The situation has taken a heavy toll on their mental health.

“The strain of missing Daniel, trying to give him support and love from the other side of the world, has put enormous strain on me physically, mentally and emotionally,” she says.

He is still no closer to getting back to Australia.

Wesley Perrett has been living in London since 2015. He shared a letter he sent to the Australian High Commission in the UK earlier this week.

He’s a more eloquent writer than me, so we’ll finish this article with his words.

“In the six-plus years since I left, Australia has always felt like home, and thinking of it produced that warm, wholesome feeling inside,” he wrote.

“That was the case until Scott Morrison’s announcement on Friday, July 2, where he announced a halving of the international arrival caps, in effect shutting the country further off from its own citizens scattered around the world.

“I felt outcast. I felt discarded. I felt abandoned.”

Commercial flights are increasingly, prohibitively expensive. Picture: Che ChorleySource:News Corp Australia

Mr Perrett initially intended to return to Australia in May of 2020. He’d resigned from his job and booked a flight to Melbourne, but the pandemic convinced him to rescind his resignation and stay put.

“Things changed again in May of 2021 when I was able to book my covid vaccination and I made the decision to try to return to Australia again, resigning from my job once more and booking flights on September 3 to Melbourne,” he said.

“Not having been in Australia for so long (he was last there in 2019), I was so excited and had begun counting down the days until I was due to fly. I’d already started shipping some of my possessions back.

“Then came the Prime Minister’s announcement, since which my stress and anxiety levels have been heightened and I imagine shall remain that way for (as of writing) 60 days until I (hopefully) board my flight.”

Mr Perrett said his most overwhelming emotion since the announcement has been “disillusionment”.

“I feel so let down by the Australian government, so abandoned, a feeling I never thought a country of such mateship would make me feel,” he wrote.

“I have even at times started to question if I should even be trying to return to a country that seems to be doing its utmost to stop me from doing so.

“The frustrating part is that I am yet to see any evidence-based justification for restricting returning Australians in this way. The provided justification being to ease pressure on the hotel quarantine system, something the government has had plenty of time to improve.

“This comes in the face of rising vaccination rates around the world, meaning many returnees will be vaccinated and pose a lower threat of spreading covid.”

He doesn’t know what he will do if his flight is cancelled, as he could not afford to rebook a ticket at the current price levels. His visa will soon expire and he no longer has any source of income. The end of his lease coincides with his flight.

“All I want to do is return home to my friends and family, something I have been waiting so long to do.

“I am only one of many citizens who have been affected in this way. The impact has already been felt by many as airlines deal with the lower caps, as people who have packed up their lives face the prospect of cancelled flights and having to rebook at exorbitant prices, or potentially being homeless while they wait for another way home.

“Yes, repatriation flights present an option, but these are few and far between and often people are notified at short notice. And once notified, tickets on these flights can be gone in minutes.

“I just fail to comprehend how a government can willingly put their citizens through this.”

Sam is news.com.au’s US correspondent | @SamClench

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