Dutch-Australian Pieter den Heten has been stranded in Amsterdam for six months, unemployed and separated from his partner — but it was an “eye-opening” conversation with a close friend that pushed him to become an advocate for Australians who can’t get home.
“This friend was an open-minded, progressive young person, so I was shocked that their response to my situation … was outright dismissive,” Mr den Heten said.
“It got me thinking — how is this situation being portrayed back home? How is the Australian public receiving it?”
A quick scroll through social media feeds reveals some of the negative and even hostile attitudes towards Australians who have found themselves caught overseas amid the coronavirus pandemic.
And Mr den Heten also found disheartening a recent Guardian poll which showed 65 per cent of those surveyed supported closing the border to Australians wanting to return from overseas — so the UX designer decided to get to work.
Overnight Mr den Heten created removethecap.com — a website designed to visually convey the difficulties and delays Australians are encountering in their attempts to return home.
“The sheer number [of Australians trying to get home] and scale of the issue really triggered my inner activist,” he said.
“Instead of sitting back and being a keyboard warrior I thought, ‘Why not do something a bit more tangible with the skills I have?'”
“I really felt like I needed to do something.”
Putting stories to the numbers
Thousands of Australians remain overseas amid the pandemic, stranded for a variety of reasons including the cap on international arrivals and a scarcity of tickets, soaring ticket prices and the cost of mandatory quarantine.
Acting Immigration Minister Alan Tudge told the ABC last week Australia’s current limit of 4,000 arrivals a week would be considered by the National Cabinet at its next meeting.
“Those caps will be reviewed,” he said.
“Now, it does mean 4,000 people can come in each week. There are still about 20,000-odd people overseas, Australians who want to come back. That means they have got a little bit of a delay.”
Last month, Finance Minister Matthias Cormann said he could not yet “foresee the timetable by which international borders will be able to open”, leaving Australians stuck at home — and those overseas with a difficult time to get back.
In the meantime, Mr den Heten’s website helps put the numbers in perspective, with real stories from Mauritius to Russia, Pakistan to Argentina, and Azerbaijan to Saudi Arabia.
Stranded Australians can “drop a pin” on the map, upload a photograph and share their experience on the website.
Since its launch last week, the website has registered more than 600 Australians and their families across more than 30 countries.
“I wanted to put faces and stories to the numbers — these are real people, not just statistics,” he said.
“I wanted to show the Australian public what we are going through … in the hope it would create some empathy towards us.”
‘I’m not trying to get sympathy’
For 23-year-old journalism student Naomi Lea Nguyen, sharing her story was not about getting sympathy.
Ms Nguyen had just commenced a teaching assistant position in Valencia when, in early March, Spain entered what turned out to be one of the world’s longest, strictest lockdowns.
When coronavirus restrictions were lifted and Europe started slowly reopening in June, the journalism student from Sydney arranged a flight home from London.
But that flight was rescheduled several times, before being cancelled altogether.
The process has forced her to couch surf with friends in multiple cities across the United Kingdom for several weeks. She’s still waiting to get home.
“I’m not trying to get sympathy,” she said.
“No-one is out here wanting people to feel bad for us. We just want to get home.”
Ms Nguyen says she wants Australians back home to grasp the magnitude of what is “a worldwide issue that encompasses a lot of people in a lot of varying circumstances”.
“The more people share where they are and what their circumstances are, the more people back home can see that the Government’s one-size-fits-all answer clearly doesn’t fit,” she said.
“This situation is not black and white — it’s not even grey. It’s a rainbow of different stories and situations.
“We need to find a more humane, more realistic approach to this.”
‘I hope to create change’
Ultimately, Mr den Heten hopes the Remove the Cap project will sway the Federal Government into reconsidering some of the measures preventing citizens and permanent residents from returning home.
“By generating empathy from the public, I hope to create change,” he said.
“The Government seems to do what the public asks from them, so if this website can change public opinion, I have good hopes it could change policy.”
But for now, Mr den Heten is still trying to get home himself.
After three rescheduled or cancelled flights, Mr den Heten maxed out his credit card to purchase a business class ticket in the hopes it will secure his passage home.
Nevertheless, Mr den Heten is still not convinced he’ll make it onboard.
“I purchased one of the cheapest business class upgrades available, so with everything I know now, I’m about 90 per cent sure I won’t get on that flight,” he said. “It’s a nightmare.”