Australia’s international borders are due to reopen next month for people returning to states with an 80% vaccination rate.
Australian citizens and permanent residents who have been fully vaccinated with an approved vaccine will be allowed to quarantine at home. They will also be able to leave Australia without exemption from early November.
But that doesn’t mean the plight of Australians stranded abroad during the pandemic is over.
We are tracking the experience of this group during the pandemic. Our research shows not only the inadequacy of government support for this group, but also some immediate and potentially long-term effects on their lives. In this piece, we also set out some of the other barriers that are making it so difficult to come home to Australia.
There are more people trapped than we think?
To prevent the spread of COVID, Australia closed its borders to all non-citizens and non-residents in March 2020, giving it some of the strictest border rules in the world. While Australian citizens could still officially travel to Australia, a severe reduction in available flights made it impossible for many to go home.
According to the Department of Foreign Affairs, there are currently more than 45,000 Australians registered overseas who need help getting home.
But advocacy group Reconnect Australia says the number could be much higher. This is based on an estimated one million Australians living abroad, 30% of Australians born abroad and two million temporary visa holders in Australia – most of whom would not be eligible for DFAT re-evaluation or fit the travel exemption category.
Survey: Psychological and Financial Implications
Over the past 18 months, countless disturbing stories have been shared on mainstream media and social media of stranded passengers whose flights have been postponed or cancelled. This includes people who are missing at funerals for close family members, being separated from their peers and children, or unable to visit sick family members.
To better understand this phenomenon, we examined the psychological and financial implications of being stranded abroad during this pandemic.
Read more: Australians do not have a ‘right’ to travel. Does COVID mean our days of careless foreign travels are over?
In September this year, we surveyed 1,330 stranded travelers from around the world (including Australians) and found that 64% had moderate to extreme depression. While others reported anxiety (42%) and stress (58%) resulting from their condition.
Some of our participants also reported homelessness, significant financial distress, and little or no support from their national governments.
Government assistance for people stranded abroad
The onus of assisting these stranded passengers usually falls on the “domestic” governments for support.
In a forthcoming study led by Pippa McDermid, we analyzed the availability of government support, including financial assistance, emergency housing and mental health support, to citizens of eleven countries stranded abroad due to COVID restrictions. This includes Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Thailand.
No country provided comprehensive aid in all areas.
Only Spain and France have developed solutions for emergency accommodation needs for citizens stranded abroad, with Spanish or French citizens either hosting citizens in need or requesting emergency accommodation on relevant platforms.
Australia was one of six countries that provided some form of mental health support to citizens, including extensive resources and referrals to mental health support services overseas.
It was also one of five that provided financial assistance. However, the loan applications were not straightforward and the money was required to be paid within six months. Other countries, including France, appeared more flexible with the financial aid provided.
Australia was rated as “hard enough to find”, based on standard readability scores, in terms of the clarity of the information provided on government websites. It was worse than the UK, France and Canada scores.
Enough flights to bring everyone back?
While the reopening of Australia’s borders is good news, concerns remain about the ability of airlines to bring stranded passengers home. For example, the recently announced DFAT repatriation flight from London took about ten minutes to sell.
Concerns have also been raised that Qantas does not have enough aircraft to operate all the international flights it is currently selling for next year. Other international carriers await clarity from the Australian government before resuming their flights schedule
fall through the cracks
Meanwhile, some Australians stranded abroad are looking forward to the expiration of their visas. Through our research, we have heard stories that these people are unable to find a home and therefore apply for temporary visas, often in a third country, adding to the disruption, stress and cost imposed on them by travel restrictions. Huh.
The traveler we spoke to during our research based in China simply couldn’t afford the cost of flights. They must give 30 days’ notice to their employer if they intend to leave the country. If their flights are cancelled, they are at risk of being left without a work permit. Australian government funding does not cover the cost of flights.
Anecdotally, we expect it to take a few months for individual states to reopen. As much as we’d love to stay home for Christmas, we think it’ll be more likely in the first quarter of next year.
Stranded people want to clarify whether they have tried to go home – but the availability and predictability of flights remains a major hurdle.
What about unaccompanied children and non-citizens?
Another issue of concern is the plight of children who are stranded abroad without their parents.
As of July this year, 438 Australian children alone were still stranded overseas due to COVID restrictions. Complicating this, children below the age of four are not allowed to travel alone, while children between the ages of five and 11 can travel only if their flight is less than four hours.
Read more: The crisis in India is a terrifying example of why we need a better way to bring Australians home
Meanwhile, little has been said about what rights Australian-based non-citizens will have once travel resumes. These include people temporarily studying or working in Australia who have not been able to make a short-term return to their country of origin.
If they leave Australia, there is no guarantee that they will be able to return on time to fulfill their studies or work contracts.
what needs to be changed now
As we begin to emerge from restrictions, there are many things the federal government can do to improve the conditions of stranded people and speed up their return home. This includes:
- Provide clarity on when and how stranded passengers will be brought back
- Work closely with airlines to ensure that flights and services reflect the countries where stranded passengers are located
- Provide easy access to financial loans
- Revise government information online to ensure it is timely, relevant and easy to use
- Add temporary visa holders to the group of people able to use home quarantine
- Develop a fair plan for people who have been unable to access vaccination overseas or who have been vaccinated against an unrecognized vaccine
- Make sure mental health services are available to those living abroad.
While the role of border controls as a highly effective strategy in the containment of COVID cannot be underestimated, it raises serious questions about how to protect public health without long-term disruption and negative impact on people’s well-being.
While updating guidelines for future pandemics and other emergency events, it is also important how we support citizens, residents and temporary visa holders stranded abroad.
The authors would like to thank Pippa McDermid and Siobhan Talty for their contributions to the article.