Politics

Scott Morrison Thinks Aussies Overseas Should Have Come Home Already. Here’s Why They Haven’t

He says Australians have had 'plenty of time to get home', but that completely washes away how hard it is to pack up your life during a pandemic.

Australian expats travellers returning travellers

Australians abroad are feeling abandoned and pissed off by Scott Morrison’s repeated claim that they’ve “had time” to return home by now.

The Federal Government’s newly introduced cap to international flights, and the recently announced bill for mandatory hotel quarantine — which can reach up-to $3000  — is compounding that feeling, making Aussie expats feel punished for trying to get back home.

Since March 17, Australians living abroad have been advised that if they would like to come home due to COVID-19, they should do so as soon as possible, advising that international travel may become increasingly difficult.

The issue is that for many, ASAP has become months on end due to logistics, health issues, contractual obligations and a lack of flights. Adding to the frustration, they never assumed that coming home would be made even more difficult by the Australian government itself.

Last Friday, the federal cabinet slashed the number of flights allowed into Australia by almost half in order to sustain the national hotel quarantine model.

The numbers back up the stress on the system they’re citing.

In June alone, 28,000 people entered Australia — a significant portion of the 70,000 who have re-entered Australia since March 27, when hotel quarantine measures came into place. Victoria also suspended all flights last week, only further adding pressure to other cities — as did people avoiding QLD, then the only state to introduce a charge for quarantine.

Now, approximately 4000 people will arrive home each week. NSW, which has received almost half of returning Australians, will now only take 450 each day, with a cap of 50 passengers per flight, while WA will only take 525 people a week. The decision which has seen many flights cancelled, leaving many who already packed up their lives overseas stuck in limbo and fighting for spots against others in the same situation as airlines are allegedly prioritising those who pay more.

“The option to book a flight and come back is very limited and people feel forced to pay a premium to ensure they make it under the cap,” says Alana, 31, who is currently in quarantine in Perth.

“Mostly, people trying to return are desperate and financially stressed already without introducing flight caps, ‘forced’ flight upgrades and mandatory quarantine payments.”

Alana and her husband had been trying to “hold on” in Dubai, hoping their respective jobs would offer them work again after closing during to COVID-19. But after four months living in Dubai without jobs — and therefore no insurance, visa or ability to rent, leaving them at the grace of friends to open their doors — and finding out Alana was pregnant, the couple jumped at the chance to fly to Australia two weeks ago when his permanent residency visa was approved “by miracle”.

Then, a day before their July 6 flight to Sydney, Etihad Airways moved them over to a flight a week later. Reading about Sydney Airport’s then-just introduced cap, the couple feared they would continually be bumped in favour of business passengers, and briefly considered forking out for an upgrade to ensure a ticket.

Between the two of them, the flight would have cost $10,000, but instead they abandoned that ticket completely and booked with another airway to get to Perth before a WA cap was introduced. She’s glad to currently be in a hotel there, though even that itself carries a mixed sense of relief.

“I’m out of pocket two international flights now, have received one reduced paycheck since March, and have arrived to Australia five months pregnant with absolutely maxed credit cards and very depleted savings,” she says.

Meanwhile, those who do have security abroad — whether that be a job, housing or community — it’s an altogether different risk to return to Australia and give all those up — especially given that the federal government remains tight-lipped over their plans with JobKeeker or JobSeeker’s COVID-19 supplement, both currently scheduled to end in September.

In terms of the quarantine hotel fee, those without the money to pay can apply for exemptions in QLD (and seemingly elsewhere, though specifics are yet to be announced), though the stress alone of potentially footing a $3000 bill after an expensive flight could cause Australians to hesitate on returning.

For Many, It’s Simply Impossible To Get Home

While the NSW Premier keeps downplaying those returning as “travellers”, very few, if any, Australians still overseas are having a frivolous time.

“What really upsets me is the government using the word ‘travellers’ like we went on a holiday,” says Tony, 44. “And now I’m stuck in a country the government considers ‘risky‘ because of its new laws, but can’t move.”

In January, Tony and his family decided to move back to Australia after living in Hong Kong for 12 years, citing the city’s political unrest. They returned to Australia later that month for house hunting, with a plan to make the move to the Gold Coast later in the year.

“As things escalated in Australia, we decided to move earlier — I had a bad feeling and here we are,” he says. “We went back to Hong Kong to sell everything and [in March] bought a ticket back to Australia for mid-May.”

Since then, they’ve had three flights cancelled on them months apart, with each time Cathay Airways pushing back prospective flights. In April, he was told no flights would head to Brisbane until July. Then, in mid-June, he was told July’s flights weren’t going ahead.

“What really upsets me is the government using the word ‘travellers’ like we went on a holiday.”

“[That’s when] panic starts kicking in as in the meantime, I’d sold my car and rented out our home in Hong Kong,” he said. “[So], I rebooked for August 1, when the tenant comes, and in the beginning of July, I get another notification that the flight’s cancelled, but could be rebooked in September. At this stage, I can’t wait and asked the airline to re-route my flight to Sydney instead.”

With Sydney’s flight caps, Tony is unsure whether they’ll get home on their fourth booked flight. As of August 1, they’ll have no home in Hong Kong.

Meanwhile, when asked about states hitting these travellers with bills for their own quarantine, Scott Morrison argued that if people wanted to avoid fees, they should have come home earlier.

“I think that would be a completely understandable proposition,” he said. “There have been many opportunities for people to return… if they’re choosing to do so now, they have obviously delayed that decision for a period.”

The sentiment was echoed by NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian, who announced the state will soon charge individuals $3000 for their stay as of July 18, slightly above QLD’s $2800. “Overseas returning travellers… have had plenty of time to get back to Australia,” she said.

On a purely practical level, the argument that people should have returned by now — echoed endlessly on social media, with many commenters on articles stating people have left the country, and now have to face the consequences of daring to leave — doesn’t add up.

Smart Traveller estimates 1 million Australians currently live or work abroad. And while not all of those will come home — to have all those who will return do so within the first few months would have completely overwhelmed our quarantine system.

With no long-term plan to accept staggered returns, state governments are now introducing caps to maintain stability while disrupting those who currently have tickets home, and then considering charging people determined to be ‘late’ to return as if in punishment.

And on a compassionate level, the argument that people should have returned earlier falls flat. As does the language that the NSW Premier keeps using of those returning as ‘travellers’, when very few, if any, at this point are hanging onto a holiday.

And What About The Babies?

Names with asterisks are pseudonyms due to concerns over visa applications.

“For Scott Morrison to state that Australians have had plenty of time to get home is just so out of touch and crude,” says Rachel*.

Rachel has been eager to move from the US to Australia with her American husband for a long time. Now they’ve saved up, but there’s one problem. Well, two.

“We are finally in a place where we can afford to go home and have been itching to do so, but as we’ve got nine-month-old twins whose citizenship papers haven’t yet been processed, there’s no way we can actually get there yet,” she says. “We are waiting on their approvals, as well as my husband’s visa.”

Sarah* and her family are in a similar situation. They live in Hong Kong, and last year adopted a daughter with plans to move back to Australia. Now, they’re waiting for her visa from the Australian government, and can’t leave without it.

“I feel as though we aren’t being looked at as Australians.”

The adoption was finalised in March 2020, and all paperwork was into the Australian visa department in April,” she said. “We are still waiting. They have acknowledged they have received our application and that’s been it.”

Sarah has two sons, too, a 9-year-old and a 14-year-old. With schools closing in Hong Kong in January, they sent their 14-year-old home to Australia, meaning they haven’t seen him for most of the year.

I feel as though we aren’t being looked at as Australians,” she said. “Myself, my husband and two sons were all born in Australia and have Aussie passports, but we can’t get back to Australia because our daughter is born in Hong Kong and we need to get her visa.”

“In normal circumstances, we could apply for a visitor visa for her to enter but Australia isn’t issuing those at present. We also had to apply for an exemption to then apply for her visa, and we haven’t even had that acknowledged.”

Meanwhile Christina, 35, found herself unable to leave the US because doing so would’ve meant abandoning her three cats. Before COVID, she and her partner had everything planned.

“We prepared our three cats for importation and quarantine (a 6+ month process and very costly), shipped our possessions in a container, and put our house on the market. Everything was set for our cats (and us) to arrive back in Australia in early April,” she says.

“Then the stay-in-place orders came. And the job layoffs. And the travel restrictions (including the Qantas cancellation of the flight booked for our cats). Our house was under contract at this point and so we found ourselves in a position of becoming homeless during the lockdowns.”

Because Australia only accepts animals arriving directly through Melbourne airport, and there were no direct flights from the US to Melbourne, they were stuck. Without a home, they improvised.

“We purchased a motorhome and lived in it with our cats for three months waiting and hoping for some way to get back to Australia. We found out about a pet transport company that had contracted with Air New Zealand to fly pets from North America to Melbourne via Auckland. We were finally able to get our cats (and ourselves) booked on another flight and, luckily, it wasn’t cancelled this time.”

Many other pet owners haven’t been as lucky — and when flights redirected from Melbourne earlier this month, animals mid-transit were left stranded across the world, occasionally without their owners.

And For Some, It Wasn’t Safe To Travel Until Now

Aimee, 33, says she had two issues that stopped her and her husband from returning from London back in March.

“The first isn’t that interesting and is the same as thousands of other Aussies. We had a lease on an expensive apartment, worldly possessions to organise and no employment in Australia.”

That was hard enough — but as a severe asthmatic, Aimme is considered “extremely clinically vulnerable” to COVID-19. She was advised moving was too risky, even if London was itself a COVID-19 hotspot.

I’ve spent 15 weeks inside my London flat, not leaving for any reason. My husband has done the same, albeit he runs once a day. We have had grocery deliveries, and other than that zero human contact,” she says. “It’s mostly been ok, with the light at the end of the tunnel being that I was told that as the virus curve flattened and the numbers of travellers returning reduced, my risk with flying would be likewise reduced.”

After hearing medical opinions from both the NHS and physicians in Australia, it was determined Aimee would now be safer here than there. “With [the now] relatively low numbers on flights I was advised to leave the UK within a couple of weeks of the return to ‘new normal’,” she said, referring to London’s reopening of shops, pubs and restaurants. 

Aimee and her husband have family in Melbourne, but their booked flight was cancelled and they found themselves doing something they’d considered for the longer-term future.

“I’m now at a loss as to whether I can keep myself safe.”

“We quickly decided that we would bite the bullet and move to Perth, partially motivated by no quarantine costs but also by its strict rules with the rest of Australia. It’s fair to say I’m traumatised and petrified by this virus.”

Now, they’re leaving London next Tuesday and Aimee is terrified that the flight won’t go ahead. She describing this past week of waiting as the “most stressful” of the entire lockdown.

I feel like I’ve done everything right to protect myself,” she says. “As hard as it was not to jump on a plane at the start of the pandemic, I needed to follow doctors advice — literally on fear of death.”

“I’m now at a loss as to whether I can keep myself safe. Our lease ends, we have no way of knowing whether our flight to Perth will actually leave on Tuesday. If it doesn’t I will have to scramble about in short term accommodation until we work it out, potentially leaving myself vulnerable once again.”


Jared Richards is Junkee’s night editor, and was based in Berlin but is currently based in a Sydney quarantine hotel. He’s on Twitter.

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