Tens of thousands of Australians will be stranded abroad this Christmas

(CNN) — Anxious, angry and abandoned. Less than two weeks from Christmas, at least 39,000 Australian citizens and permanent residents are still stranded overseas due to Australia’s international arrival caps.

Hitching a ride on Santa’s sleigh now seems like the only option for those wanting to make it home for the holidays.

For the past five months, Australia has limited the number of international arrivals. Originally capped at just under 4,000 arrivals per week, the country is now accepting just over 7,000.

Yet despite the increase, the situation for those stranded is only getting worse.

The caps are one of the many stringent border controls the country has adopted in its battle against COVID-19. The government has banned foreign travelers from entering the country and barred its own citizens from leaving since March, meaning those looking to return under the cap scheme are Australian citizens and permanent residents.

Many have no jobs, no visa, no healthcare, no access to welfare, and in some cases, no permanent roof over their head.

But contrary to the blame game narrative that has played out in Australia, those stranded did not disobey government advice. In March, the government advised those who were in a safe place with a secure job to stay abroad.

Travellers arrive at a hotel in Melbourne on December 7, 2020. Australians returning from overseas must quarantine for two weeks.

WILLIAM WEST/AFP/Getty Images

No one could have predicted the trajectory or impact the pandemic would have on one’s personal situation. For those who were not in a safe and secure place, options to get home quickly disappeared, with some countries locking down and pausing international flights.

A breach of international law?

The caps, introduced in mid-July, were put in place after a hotel quarantine security scandal in Melbourne sparked the country’s second Covid-19 wave. Victoria halted all international arrivals, only allowing them to resume earlier this month, while other states and territories restricted the capacity of their mandatory hotel quarantine schemes.

This has resulted in an unsustainable backlog of canceled flights, with little more than 30 people allowed on each aircraft, while one-way tickets have been inflated to a bankrupting price tag.

For example, a flight from Abu Dhabi to Sydney currently costs upwards of 10,000 AUD ($7,564), with no guarantee that the flight will go ahead. The cost of mandatory hotel quarantine averages around 3,000 AUD per person.

In mid-September, two months after the caps were introduced, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he hoped to get “as many people (as possible) home, if not all of them, by Christmas”. Health Minister Greg Hunt also echoed those comments, saying he wanted to “ensure that every Australian who wants to come home is home by Christmas”.

At the time, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) said at least 25,000 Australians had registered their need to come home since the caps were introduced in mid-July. However, the Board of Airline Representatives of Australia estimated the true number of those stranded at the time to be closer to 100,000.

The disconnect between those registered with DFAT and the true number of Australians wanting to come home is continually exemplified. DFAT told CNN that, since mid-September, over 45,000 Australians have returned from overseas. Yet only 17,500 of them were registered with DFAT.

DFAT’s website advises Australians not to register if “you don’t need help returning.” It also states that “registering does not guarantee we can facilitate your return”. Furthermore, government-run Smart Traveller states “it’s up to the airlines, not the government, to decide who it sells tickets to”.

Despite several increases in the caps, the number of those registered is only continuing to grow. Less than a fortnight out from Christmas, DFAT has confirmed with CNN that there are currently 39,000 Australians registered. The actual number of those trying to come home, as discussed above, is likely to be significantly higher.

Christmas, due to Scott Morrison’s earlier comments, provides a timeline. But at the end of the day, it is no more significant than all the days that will pass under this cap scheme going forward. Each and every day is pushing those stranded into further financial and emotional calamity.

Joel Mackay from Amnesty International Australia believes the caps are a breach of international law.

“The Australian government has an obligation under the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to bring its citizens home,” says Mackay.

“It can’t do that with the caps in place. In some cases where children are separated from their families, the government may also be breaching the Convention on the Rights of the Child.”

‘I cry thinking about it’

Over the last several weeks, CNN has spoken to hundreds of stranded people — each with their own story, and crippling sense of pain and hopelessness.

Among these is Manoj Kulkarni. It’s been over 10 months since he last saw his four-year-old son, Akshaj.

At the beginning of the year, Kulkarni and his family traveled from Australia to India for a family event. He returned home with his wife in February. His son was meant to return a month later after spending quality time with his grandparents.

Manoj Kulkarni traveled to India with his wife and son at the beginning of the year.

Manoj Kulkarni traveled to India with his wife and son at the beginning of the year.

Courtesy Manoj Kulkarni

As the coronavirus pandemic sent the world into hibernation, that became an impossible feat. In March, India’s government temporarily suspended international flights, and Australia closed its international borders to foreigners.

As Akshaj’s grandparents are not Australian citizens or permanent residents, they were not allowed to bring the child home.

“Akshaj was getting depressed. He stopped eating and was getting weak,” says Kulkarni. “He wanted his parents.”

Manoj’s wife was able to secure a ticket to fly back to her son in Bangalore in September, with the aim of bringing him home. Several months on, due to the caps, the pair are still stranded. Kulkarni is worried that his son will miss another year of school.

Their story isn’t unusual. Australian Janita Jenice has just made the tough decision to leave her partner and two-year-old child behind.

Jenice’s family has been stuck in the UK since January after seven canceled flights. They burned through all of their savings and are now living on credit cards.

The couple could no longer afford three tickets home, instead opting to book the next round for just Jenice. She is due to depart in January.

“I cry thinking about it. But we had run out of money.” says Jenice. “Hopefully I can get back to work so we can afford to buy new tickets in March or April.”

Missed goodbyes

Though Australians have been barred from leaving the country since March, exceptions have been made on compassionate grounds and for those who have permanent residency abroad.

Those who left during the pandemic on a return ticket are not holidaymakers gallivanting around Greece. They did so with permission from the government to care for a sick or dying loved one, who in some cases had no one else by their bedside.

Jeffrey Slater applied for a compassionate exemption in order to travel to the United States and look after his gravely ill father, who had suffered multiple strokes. The exemption took over three months to process, and sadly his father passed away while Jeffrey and his wife, Victoria, were on their way to San Diego. He missed saying goodbye by less than 24 hours.

Victoria Slater at the Mexican border after her US visa expired.

Victoria Slater at the Mexican border after her US visa expired.

Jeffrey Slater

Now, four months on, the couple has just had their flights home canceled for a fifth time by Qatar Airways. To make matters worse, they’ve been told there are no available tickets forecast in the near future, with the airline too clogged up by the backlog of canceled flights.

“The lack of insurance is the biggest worry,” Jeffrey Slater explains. “We are 60 and 63, so this is a concern. If we become ill, we would be destroyed by the hospital bills.”

Alongside insurance comes the issue of visas, and the price tag of life in limbo. Jeffrey has both American and Australian citizenship, but Victoria has now overstayed her ESTA visa. The pair have made multiple attempts to extend Victoria’s visa, even crossing and re-entering through the Mexican border.

She is now living as an illegal alien and could face a five-year ban from the US when the couple are finally able to depart. Moreover, the couple tell CNN they have already forked out tens of thousands of dollars in accommodation, transport and flights, on top of their mortgage and daily expenses back home in Australia.

Jeffrey Slater lost his job of 35 years during the pandemic, and due to his status as stranded abroad he is unable to access any welfare payments.

Asked what comes next, he isn’t optimistic.

“Wait for a vaccine? Our options are as scarce as a porcupine in a balloon factory.”

Double-edged sword

The caps are currently in place until January 31, but have been extended before, and could be extended again.

Yet life is very much back to normal in Australia. All restrictions have been eased, domestic travel is back in play, sporting stadiums are packed with crowds, musical theaters are raising their red curtains again, and Christmas festivities are in full swing.

The country is celebrating record low case numbers, with the prime minister touting his success to world leaders.

Due to Australia's strict arrival caps, flights coming into the country are nearly empty -- in spite of a long line of people wanting to be on them.

Due to Australia’s strict arrival caps, flights coming into the country are nearly empty — in spite of a long line of people wanting to be on them.

Paul Devitt/CNN

But success at home has also created a sense of fear amongst the general public, with worries that an influx of arrivals from abroad could bring back the invisible enemy.

While online behavior isn’t indicative of the mood of an entire population, the abuse towards those stranded is vile and noteworthy.

Several people, who would prefer to remain anonymous due to the abuse they’ve already received, have told CNN that they’ve been sent comments along the lines of “it’s your fault,” “you should get Covid-19 and die,” “you are wasting taxpayer’s money,” and “you don’t deserve to come home.”

It doesn’t take more than a quick scroll on social media to see similar comments backing up their claims.

All of this leaves the prime minister facing a double-edged sword. If he scraps the caps and new outbreaks occur, he is breaking his promise of keeping Australia safe. If he extends the caps, he is breaking his promise to bring Australians home.

The decision, however, seems to already have been made.


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