Hundreds of Australians trapped in Peru have begun the journey home on a charter flight costing $5000 for a one-way ticket, while another 150 left behind fear they have been abandoned by the Morrison government.
About 260 passengers were picked up in buses in Peru on Monday morning (Australian time).
They were told to wear face masks or they would not be allowed to board the flight.
But there was also confusion at the military airport, when some Australians on the waitlist were told to get ready to leave only to be refused permission to board the plane.
Karolina Ristevski, who flew into Peru on March 15 for a wedding, has been desperately trying to return home since the country’s coronavirus lockdown began nearly a fortnight ago.
But when she arrived at the military airport on Monday, she was told by Australian officials she could not board the plane.
“I just want to go home. I don’t want to die here, basically,” she told The New Daily.
“I was in tears. I couldn’t believe it. I was looking at someone from the embassy, saying ‘we are here and we will pay $5000 for the ticket’, and they are not taking you. I felt lost.”
A day earlier, Ms Ristevski’s Airbnb had received a call urging her to head for the military airport in the hope there might be spare seats because about 20 New Zealanders had been removed from the flight.
“There was a lot of miscommunication. We received a call. We weren’t home at this Airbnb,” she said.
“Many things things had transpired and we were at the military airport as at 7am. Australia officially is the only country that has announced that they will not repatriate their citizens.
“What we witnessed at the military airport from our government and the way other officials treated us was appalling. Peru was outstanding, they were gobsmacked at Australia leaving us stranded.”
“Everybody was stunned. We were told the Australian ambassador Diana [Nelson] was going to come and talk to us. She didn’t.
“It’s been a very long day. The Australian buses waiting for 2.5 hours while all other country buses drove straight in.”
On March 17, Prime Minister Scott Morrison warned all Australians overseas they must return home as quickly as possible as borders closed around the world.
While the US, Britain and Israel have organised free or low-cost repatriation flights for stranded travellers, Australia has refused to do so and simply assisted a private company called Chimu to secure clearances to leave from military airports.
Confusion about the Chimu flights and concerns they might be a scam left many Australians unsure whether to book seats. By the time Ms Nelson used Twitter to officially urge Australians to book on the flights, they were sold out, leaving them stranded.
Many stranded Australians have also pinned their hopes on Qantas tickets that have been cancelled, or hopes the airports would reopen. This is despite repeated official warnings that flights have been suspended and the international airport is closed.
Some Australians also did not book on the Chimu flights because they believed the Peruvian government was likely to lift border closures on March 31. There have also been repeated warnings that this is highly unlikely and the lockdown could go on for months.
Dozens of Australians in rural Peru have no way of getting to the airport for the flights without a police escort organised by diplomats because roads are closed, with police checkpoints.
To date, those clearances have not been secured by Australian officials in Peru.
But their plight could soon be shared by thousands of Australians around the world – including in India, Thailand, and Bali – as nations look to close borders and social unrest rises around the world.
Sympathy for those stranded in Peru, particularly those who had the chance to book and board on Monday flights but declined to leave in hopes of a cheaper option, also appears to be hardening in Canberra.
The Morrison government has repeatedly stated it will not offer free repatriation flights. It is working with Qantas and Virgin to organise further flights and clearances to leave the military airport as exemptions for some flights allow foreign nationals to return home.
Labor’s foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong said many Australians trapped overseas had tried to leave but had been unable to through no fault of their own.
“The Peruvian flight … the advice we have from people on the ground is that a similar fight for residents of the United Kingdom costs about £250 ($A500); Australians are looking to stump up $5000,” she said.
“These are very large amounts of money for people who are finding it very difficult to get back and we would say to the government: cost shouldn’t be a barrier to travel in these circumstances. I mean, this is an unprecedented set of circumstances.”