Australians stranded abroad during the coronavirus crisis are scared they will go broke, lose their homes or remain trapped in limbo indefinitely.

Some left Australia after they were granted special travel exemptions to be with loved ones who were terminally ill.

Others flew out long before the pandemic began, and have spent months being repeatedly bumped off flights to come home.

At least 23,000 Australians are registered with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade seeking to return home, with more than 3,000 of those classified as being “vulnerable” for health or financial reasons.

Here are some of their stories.

Trev Bowdidge, Central Coast, NSW

In June this year, Trev Bowdidge made an important trip from Sydney to London.

Australia’s borders were closed, but the 49-year-old was given an emergency travel exemption to be with his dying father during his last days.

“I tried desperately to get back to the UK as soon as I could to see him before he went but couldn’t get there in time,” the 49-year-old told SBS News. “He passed away before I could get there.”

On 25 June, Mr Bowdidge arrived in London. He stayed to organise the funeral and help his elderly mother, with a return flight booked for 29 July.

His flights were then repeatedly bumped and rescheduled.

Mr Bowdidge is now stranded in the UK, waiting for a 25 September flight that may also end up cancelled.

“I have a wife and three kids waiting for me back in Sydney to come home, and I have no idea whether my job will still be there when I get back or for how much longer they will keep paying me for,” he said.

“The stress on all of us is unbearable, compounded by the fact the reason for my visit was a traumatic one on compassionate grounds.

“It was one thing not having my family around me at my dad’s funeral, but for them to be separated indefinitely in the immediate months afterwards is really hard for all of us to bear.”

Mr Bowdidge also said he noticed many Australians on social media arguing that “overseas residents should have come home sooner so it’s their own fault”.

He said he was living proof they should reconsider this position.

“There are many of us like myself that are only stranded in other countries for reasons beyond our control,” he said.

“I knew that leaving my family to rush to see my dad was risky and I may have difficulties getting back but I didn’t foresee just how bad things could be.”

This is the last photo of Trev Bowdidge with his father before he died.

This is the last photo of Trev Bowdidge with his father before he died.

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Anna Malos, Melbourne, Vic

Anna Malos lived with her late partner, Georgie, in Melbourne for most of the past 13 years. Both of them were dual Australian-UK citizens.

Ms Malos travelled to the UK with her partner at the end of last year, as Georgie had metastatic cancer and wanted to be near her family for the end stage of her life.

“She had been told that she may only have months or weeks to live and so it was time to be near them,” Ms Malos told SBS News.

Georgie died on 3 July. By this point, restrictions in the UK had eased enough that Ms Malos was able to be by her side.

“Before I was able to come back home to my work, house, friends and Australian family, I needed to arrange her funeral, pack the house we’d be in since January and do all the arrangements needed after someone dies,” she said.

Ms Malos booked a flight home for 1 September, which was bumped back within two days.

“Seats on my current flight when I was rebooked were £890 one way economy and £4,100 or more business class – well above normal costs,” said Ms Malos, who is now booked on an economy flight for 5 September.

“A couple of days later national cabinet extended the tight international caps – and it seemed highly unlikely I would be able to fly into Melbourne on that date. I looked at seats with Qatar to other Australian destinations but by then economy class seats around those dates were £1800 one way.”

Ms Malos is frustrated that she cannot fly home, saying she’d be willing to quarantine anywhere else, provided she could subsequently fly into Melbourne. “Is it too much to ask that citizens can get home to their own country?” she said.

“Of course the airlines need to charge as much as they can for the seats because they are being prevented by government restrictions from having commercially viable numbers onboard.

“These flights are bringing in much needed cargo as well bringing Australians home.”

Anna Malos (right) pictured with her partner Georgie in 2015.

Anna Malos (right) pictured with her partner Georgie in 2015.

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Allyson Griffiths, Sydney, NSW

Allyson Griffiths, a freelance TV producer, told SBS News she was granted an exemption on compassionate grounds to travel to the UK in June, to see her sister, Jan, who was dying from motor neurone disease.

Ms Griffiths left Australia on 15 June to attend the funeral. “When I left there was no hint that the goalposts would be totally changed and that I would not be allowed back into my own country,” she said.

Ms Griffiths said she gave up a job to make the trip, but had lined up a new job to start on 7 September. Since then, she has been repeatedly bumped off flights to return to Sydney and doesn’t have the money to pay for an upgraded business class seat.

She now has another TV job lined up for October, and fears she will lose that too if she doesn’t get back in time.

“I’m a single woman and have to pay all the bills.

“While I’m sitting here unable to work, the bills, the mortgage etc are still mounting up. I’m running out of savings and if I lose this job don’t know what will happen to my home and my life. I’m one of the lucky ones, I’m living with my parents who are feeding me but as pensioners of 87 and 90 they don’t have the money to help me,” she said.

“I feel like I’m being punished for wanting to say goodbye to my sister – with the permission of the Australian government,” she added.

“On top of my grief there is the constant stress of not knowing what will happen and the mounting financial pressure.”

Ally's sister Jan, pictured with her daughter Jess.

Ally’s sister Jan, pictured with her daughter Jess.

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Simon Carlin, Bunbury, WA

Simon Carlin, from Bunbury in Western Australia, travelled to Canada last June for what was meant to be a year-long trip with his wife and two children – more than six months before the coronavirus pandemic began.

When the Australian government urged people to return home as soon as possible in March, he told SBS News it wasn’t as simple as that.

“We still had a lease agreement finishing July 31, vehicles to sell, employment contracts to finalise, our house in Australia we were set to move back into wouldn’t be vacated until end of July and the jobs we had which were backfilled we wouldn’t be returning to till August 24,” he said.

“We also at this time already had flights scheduled to return home through Europe in July.”

To date, the Carlin family has been bumped from four flights.

Mr Carlin said he was told by one airline that he would need to purchase four business class seats to ensure a seat on the flight – at a staggering cost of $35,000.

“They informed me that the order of priority was business class, then unaccompanied minors, then pregnant women, then women with children followed by the rest of economy class. We aren’t in a position to pay the required $35,000 for the four of us to return on business class,” he said.

Mr Carlin said the struggle has taken a deeper financial hit on his family, spending their savings on cancelled flights and extending their leave without pay.

“After paying $10,200 for these flights we now have $13,300 in refunds due taking up to 30 business days and a further $9900 in travel credits for airlines will very unlikely be able to use in the next 24 months.

“We have now both had to extend our leave without pay by nearly a month and our savings are dwindling.”

Simon Carlin says the struggle to come home has taken a massive financial hit on his family.

Simon Carlin says the struggle to come home has taken a massive financial hit on his family.

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Debbie Ryan, North Lakes, QLD

Debbie Ryan, from North Lakes in Queensland, was granted permission to leave Australia on 23 July to visit her sick father, who was nearing the end of his life.

He died after she booked her flight, and she flew to England for the funeral.

Ms Ryan said she has been trying to come home ever since, to no avail, with a Qatar Airlines and Singapore Airlines flight cancelled.

Ms Ryan is now booked on a 10 September flight to Sydney, saying she chose to quarantine here as more people are allowed to enter the country each day.

“I really just need to get home, my children and grandchildren miss their mum/ nanny, my partner is struggling, my job will be at risk if I can’t get back soon and financially we may lose the house if I don’t get back soon,” she told SBS News.

Robert Lugton, QLD

Robert Lugton, from Queensland, told SBS News his brother passed away on 29 August after battling with cystic fibrosis and a lung transplant.

Mr Lugton is now based in London with his partner from the Netherlands. The funeral for his brother is due to take place on 11 September, and he fears he will be unable to attend.

“I have attempted to run the gauntlet of emergency exemption from quarantine applications, have written to my state and federal members for assistance, as well as the Federal Minister for Infrastructure and Federal Minister of Foreign Affairs,” he said.

“So much is up in the air.”

Mr Lugton said he’s worried that even if he does get on a flight back, he risks not being granted exemption from quarantine to attend the funeral.

Robert Lugton, from Queensland, told SBS News his brother passed away on 29 August after battling with cystic fibrosis and a lung transplant.

Robert Lugton, from Queensland, told SBS News his brother passed away on 29 August after battling with cystic fibrosis and a lung transplant.

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Georgia Browne, Newcastle, NSW

Georgia Browne, a freelance musician based in Scotland, received some terrible news in July.

Her mother was being admitted to hospital with a terrible cough and suspected pneumonia. It was later revealed to be related to the breast cancer she’d had two years ago, which had metastasised in her lung.

“Nobody survives this type of cancer so it became apparent that I should get back to Australia ASAP,” Ms Browne told SBS News.

She was desperate to get the next available flight, but what followed was a constant back-and-forth with the airlines, with routes opening and closing each day and prices changing by the hour.

At one point, Emirates resumed their Glasgow-Dubai-Sydney service, and Ms Browne immediately booked a one-way ticket for late August.

“I had read all the guidance for travel to Australia and I was prepared for my two week quarantine period,” she said. “Everything was in place for my departure.”

Then the attendant at the airport asked to see her COVID-19 PCR results.

Little did Ms Browne know that the UAE – through which she’d only be transiting – insisted that all passengers passing through Dubai airport get tested before they fly.

She said no one had informed her of this rule, and the airline had not highlighted it in its confirmation email.

By now, Ms Browne should be finishing her last few days in quarantine. Instead, she’s still stuck in Scotland, desperate to book another flight.

That’s not the only hurdle. Ms Browne qualified for a special exemption to the two-week quarantine period – having a family member in palliative care.

She said she out the online application, sent her supporting documents, outlined her onward travel plans and gave all the necessary details to the NSW government.

But after more than a week of agonised waiting, she was told it was “highly unlikely” she would be granted a quarantine exemption, as her mother’s condition was “not deemed critical”.

“I’ve been living in one of the worst affected countries in Europe with COVID cases in the hundreds every day,” Ms Browne said.

“I know how dangerous this virus is. I’m not going to take any unnecessary risks once I’m in Australia. I am tired of feeling penalised for wanting to be with my mother in her final days.

“All I want now is the chance to get home in time.”

 

Georgia Browne is desperate to come home and be with her terminally ill mother.

Georgia Browne is desperate to come home and be with her terminally ill mother.

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Governments agree to lift caps

State and territory leaders agreed at Friday’s national cabinet meeting the 4,000-per week cap on international arrivals should be lifted.

But there was no announcement about how much the cap could be lifted by or when it would happen.

“On international arrivals, it was agreed that we needed to further boost the capacity for inbound arrivals into Australia, particularly for those Australians seeking to come home,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters in Canberra.

“What I got agreement out from those other states and territories today was that they would be open, and work with us to take further flights in those places if we can get the planes to fly there.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade told SBS News that while the international caps are “frustrating”, they are “critical to the integrity of Australia’s quarantine system and the safety of the Australian community”.

“The Australian government is providing additional support to the most vulnerable Australian citizens whose return to Australia has been impacted by the restrictions arising from COVID-19,” the statement said.

“The enhanced program of financial assistance is intended to assist the most vulnerable Australians overseas to safely shelter in place or to help them purchase tickets for commercial flights to Australia, when they are available.

“The Australian government continues to explore options to help Australians access flights on a commercial basis, and our network of embassies and consular posts continue to provide up-to-date advice on local conditions and available flights to Australia.

“We encourage all Australians seeking to return home to register their details with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade via https://covid19.dfat.gov.au/citizeninformation/s/. We also encourage Australians to remain in regular contact with their airlines or travel agents to confirm their arrangements and to subscribe to our travel advice at Smartraveller.gov.au.”

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