When Jo Kneebone flew from Sydney to Chile in February, she was expecting to have the trip of a lifetime.
Instead, she’s now stranded without a visa and is doing manual labour on a remote property just to make ends meet, with no end or return to Australia in sight.
“I flew directly to Santiago and then I flew down to Porto Manch with the hope of cycling the entire Carretera Austral route which is a gravel bike path and highway all the way down to Villa O’Higgins, and that’s about a thousand kilometres,” Ms Kneebone told SBS News.
“I got down as far as Chochranes so was about a couple of hundred kilometres off my target and then COVID broke loose and all the regions closed down. So I was very much stuck there. My plans came to a halt very quickly.”
With overseas repatriation limited to approximately 4,000 people per week, and media reports that airlines are giving preference to those with first-class tickets, there is no telling when people stuck overseas will be able to return home.
Realising that she was going to be in Chile longer than she originally planned, Ms Kneebone found a temporary solution online: she would work for room and board.
“I was incredibly lucky,” she said.
“When I worked out that I was going to be here for a lot longer, I thought maybe possibly in about six weeks, things would open up a bit.
“And then I got a sense that things weren’t going to open up, so I went online to a website called Work Away, and they match volunteers up to properties, doing work and I found a property which was north of where I was at that time.
“It was a remote 2000 hectare property which needed assistance with forest regeneration and basic daily duties.”
Ms Kneebone, a nurse, currently remains in Chile without a visa, doing manual labour for room and board with no end in sight.
“As of today, I have no visa. When you enter Chile, you get stamped for 90 days and then you have an option to renew online. I exercised that option and I renewed it online. And then you are unable to extend after that point. I had been to the Chilean-Argentinian border to try to get my passport stamped. They were unable to do that.
“I have been going through the merry-go-round of the website and the only option it gives me is to become a temporary resident which means I have to produce lots of paperwork which I don’t have with me.
“And I don’t want to be a temporary resident. I’m just a tourist. So I presume the only option I have is to pay a fine when I exit.”
Ms Kneebone reached out to the Australian Embassy in Chile’s capital, Santiago, but said she never got further than an answering machine.
“I have had no support,” she said.
“When I have contacted the Australian Consulate in Santiago, you get an automated response. It says if you would like to have a repatriation flight, give us your name and contact details. But there are no repatriation flights.
“A few of them left in the beginning of April and May and since then we’ve been informed that there are no repatriation flights out planned until possibly 2021 which make me pretty nervous because I am here without a visa and the government cannot come to my assistance. That’s not very good.”
A Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade spokesperson told SBS News the Australian government continues to explore options to help Australians access flights on a commercial basis.
“We encourage Australians to be patient; ensure they have a safe place to stay; follow the advice of local authorities and minimise their risk of exposure to COVID-19,” they said.
“Since 13 March, the Australian Government has helped over 27,000 Australians citizens and permanent residents return home on more than 345 flights.
“We stand ready to provide consular assistance to those Australians requiring assistance. Australians overseas can contact the Consular Emergency Centre (CEC) in Canberra.”
To date, more than 27,000 Australians abroad are registered with DFAT, including around 18,800 who have expressed a wish to return to Australia.