Australia’s international borders are due to reopening next month for people returning to states with 80% vaccination rates.
Australian citizens and permanent residents who are fully vaccinated with an approved vaccine will be permitted to quarantine at home. They will also be able to leave Australia without derogation from the beginning of November.
But that doesn’t mean the plight of Australians stranded overseas during the pandemic is over.
We’ve been following this group’s experience during the pandemic. Our research not only shows the inadequacy of government support for this group, but some of the immediate and potentially long-term impacts on their lives. In this article, we also outline some of the other obstacles that continue to make it so difficult to return to Australia.
More people stuck than you think?
In an effort to stop the spread of COVID, in March 2020, Australia closed its borders to all non-citizens and non-residents, giving it some of the strictest border rules in the world. While Australian citizens could still officially travel to Australia, the huge discount in available flights have made it virtually impossible for many to return home.
According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, there are currently more than 45,000 Australians Abroad registered as needing assistance to return home.
But the defense group Reconnect Australia says the number could be much higher. This is based on approximately one million Australians to live abroad30% of Australians Born abroad and two million holders of temporary visas to Australia – most of whom would not be eligible for DFAT reparations or do not fit into a travel exemption category.
Survey: psychological and financial impacts
Over the past 18 months, countless harrowing stories have been shared across mainstream and social media of stranded travelers whose flights have been postponed or cancelled. This understand people miss the funerals of close family members, are separated from their partners and children, or cannot visit sick family members.
To better understand this phenomenon, we looked at the psychological and financial impacts of being stranded abroad during this pandemic.
In September this year, we surveyed 1,330 stranded travelers from around the world (including Australians) and identified that 64% suffered from moderate to extreme depression. While others reported anxiety (42%) and stress (58%) resulting from their situation.
Some of our participants also reported homelessness, significant financial hardship and little or no support from their national governments.
Government support for people stranded abroad
The responsibility to help these stranded travelers usually falls on the “home” governments for support.
In one upcoming study led by Pippa McDermid, we analyzed the availability of government assistance, including financial aid, emergency housing and mental health support to citizens of eleven countries stranded abroad by COVID restrictions. This includes Australia, New Zealand, Canada, USA, UK, France and Thailand.
No country provided comprehensive assistance in all areas.
Only Spain and France appear to have developed a solution to emergency housing needs for citizens in need stranded abroad, with Spanish or French nationals hosting citizens in need or requesting emergency accommodation on the respective platforms.
Australia was one of six countries to provide some form of mental health support to citizens, with detailed resources and referrals to overseas mental health support services.
It was also one of five who provided financial assistance. However, loan applications were not straightforward and funds had to be repaid within six months. Other countries, including France, have been more flexible with regard to the financial support provided.
In terms of the clarity of information provided on government websites, Australia was rated as “somewhat difficult to difficult” to read, based on standard readability scores. This was worse than the scores from the UK, France and Canada.
Enough flights to bring everyone back?
While the reopening of Australia’s borders is welcome news, concerns remain over the ability of airlines to bring stranded travelers home. For example, it took about ten minutes for a recently announced DFAT repatriation flight from London for sale.
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 are awaiting clarification from the Australian government before resuming flight schedules
fall through the cracks
Meanwhile, some Australian citizens stranded abroad are seeing their visas expire. Through our research, we have heard stories that these people cannot find a flight home and so end up applying for a temporary visa, often in a third country, adding to the disruption, stress and cost. imposed on them by travel restrictions.
One traveler we spoke to during our research, based in China, simply cannot afford the costs of the flights. They must also give 30 days notice to their employer if they intend to leave the country. If their flights are cancelled, they risk ending up without a work permit. Australian government funding does not cover the cost of flights.
Realistically, we expect it will take a few months for the reopening to settle in different states. Although we would love to be home for Christmas, we believe the first quarter of next year will be more likely.
Those stranded want to clarify if they tried to get home – but the availability and predictability of flights is a huge stumbling block.
What about unaccompanied children and non-nationals?
Another area of concern is the fate of children who remain stranded abroad without their parents.
In July of this year there was 438 unaccompanied Australian children still stuck overseas due to COVID restrictions. To complicate this, children under four are not allowed to travel alone, while children between the ages of five and 11 can only travel alone if their flight is less than four hours.
Meanwhile, little has been said about Australia-based rights non-citizen residents will have once travel starts again. These include people studying or working temporarily in Australia, who have not been able to return to their country of origin in the short term.
If they leave Australia, there is still no guarantee that they will be able to return in a timely manner to complete their studies or work contracts.
What needs to change now
As we begin to emerge from restrictions, there are many things the federal government could do to improve conditions for those stranded and speed up their return home. These include:
- clarify when and how stranded passengers will be repatriated
- work closely with airlines to ensure flights and services reflect the countries where stranded travelers are located
- facilitate access to financial loans
- review government information online to ensure it is timely, relevant and easy to access
- include temporary visa holders in the group of those who can access home quarantine
- develop an equitable plan for those who were unable to access vaccines overseas or who are vaccinated with an unrecognized vaccine
- ensure that mental health services are available for people abroad.
While the role of border control as a highly effective strategy in controlling 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.
As we update guidance for future pandemics and other emergency events, it is essential that we also modify the way we support citizens, residents and temporary visa holders who are stranded abroad.
The authors would like to thank Pippa McDermid and Siobhán Talty for their contributions to the article.