Australians stranded overseas by flight caps and tiny passenger loads on planes have spoken of their disappointment and “hopelessness” while stuck far from home.
“The cap has abandoned my family and it’s abandoned our citizens,” said Peta Stoyanovich, whose husband Luke is stuck in Serbia.
“They are not stranded – they are abandoned by the government.”
Last week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the federal government would lift the weekly number of overseas arrivals into Australia from 4000 to 6000, after striking a deal with most states to take more passengers through hotel quarantine.
The strict airport caps had been implemented to take pressure off the hotel quarantine system – with blunders in Melbourne blamed for Victoria’s COVID outbreak. But the limitations meant thousands of Australians were left in limbo overseas, unable to return home.
On Thursday, the Senate’s committee investigating the effects of the coronavirus pandemic heard sometimes distressing testimony from some of the Australians who have been unable to get flights home.
“An overwhelming sense of hopelessness just engulfs me,” Ms Stoyanovich said.
Her husband Luke went to Serbia after his father’s death. Mr Stoyanovich wants to bring his mother back to Australia, but the pair have had several flights cancelled, and might be split up and forced onto separate planes to return.
“It’s complete madness. It’s absolute madness,” a tearful Ms Stoyanovich told the committee.
“Do your bloody job, for God’s sake,” she said of the government’s efforts to get people home.
Canberra woman Gina De Ruyter, 24, is in the Philippines. She moved there to set up an animal shelter in 2019, and stayed on in the early days of the pandemic as she planned how to ensure the animals were cared for after she returned to Australia.
Then she had an accident, breaking her leg in two places. Surgery to repair her wounds left her “badly infected”.
"It just feels like a long term boyfriend cheating on me.
I've given my life to Australia & in my time of need, they have dumped me."
— Kristina Keneally (@KKeneally) September 24, 2020
“My leg has swollen up again with pus, but the doctor can’t do anything anymore because all the hospitals are filling up with coronavirus patients,” Ms De Ruyter told the committee.
The Vowels family, from Newcastle, have been in Britain since March. The father, mother and five children left just days before the federal government imposed a travel ban, and have not been able to get home.
The family were told to upgrade to business class – at a cost of $120,000, for which government officials suggested crowdfunding.
The Vowels have run out of money and are worried about defaulting on their mortgage after having five flights home cancelled.
“It just feels like a long-term boyfriend cheating on me. I’ve given my life to Australia and in my time of need they have dumped me,” Mrs Vowels said.
Officials from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet said nearly 36,000 Australians wanted to come home from overseas, while commercial flights coming in the country had 20,000 spare seats each week. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade later revised the number of citizens wanting to return home down to 26,800, claiming the larger number was the total number of Australians overseas.
35,700 Australians are stranded overseas. What has Scott Morrison done to bring them home?
Extra repatriation flights❌
Support extra commercial flights❌
Put the RAAF fleet in the air to bring ppl home❌
Open C'wealth quarantine facilities to boost capacity❌
So, nothing. pic.twitter.com/ZNS0XbNe1l
— Katy Gallagher (@SenKatyG) September 24, 2020
DPM&C officials said the delay in bringing people home was due to quarantine capacity, not plane capacity. That made ideas to boost flight capacity – such as Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese’s push to use – unnecessary.
Officials also said the department had not been asked to investigate if federal facilities could be used as quarantine sites.
Officials said the intention was to have everyone who wanted to be back in the country by Christmas.