Australians stranded overseas have branded the government’s latest offer of financial assistance “cruel” and a “joke” and called for caps on international arrivals to be lifted to allow them to return home.
On Wednesday Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne announced the government would provide “additional support to the most vulnerable Australian citizens whose return to Australia has been impacted by the restrictions arising from COVID-19.”
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) has created a “Hardship Program” that will allow loans “intended to cover temporary accommodation and daily living expenses until they can return.”
“Loans may also be available to help vulnerable Australians purchase tickets for commercial flights,” Ms Payne said. Applicants must meet strict criteria and repay the money on arrival in Australia.
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But Australians stuck overseas branded the offer of help a “joke” and a “laugh” that does not solve the real issue – a cap on international arrivals that limits the ability of people able to fly into Australia because of capacity in the quarantine system.
South Australian Diane Lee, 56, has been trying to get back to Australia from Saigon with her cat since January and said the latest offer of loans is “cruel”.
“This is a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions it really is,” she told news.com.au.
“It’s terrible. What they’re doing is forcing people to go into debt to solve a problem that they’ve created.”
“The simple thing is remove the caps. I don’t understand why that can’t be done.
“It was an absolute travesty that parliament was shut for all that time … these kind of problems could not be dealt with.”
She has personally been bumped off one flight to Australia but now has a government-mandated one scheduled for later this month. She has been forced into renting accommodation in Saigon after packing up her home in Hanoi in order to make the first flight she was due to take.
Ms Lee has since started a campaign joined by 1300 people to start a class action against government decisions that have seen them stranded overseas and is working to find legal representation.
Her campaign has brought her in touch with hundreds of Australians who have heartbreaking stories of being bumped off flights up to 13 times which she said is creating a huge mental strain.
“The mental health, the financial stress, some people really are breaking point,” she said. “The difficulty is the uncertainty. You’re just living with uncertainty, you can’t plan anything it’s just cruel.”
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Almost 19,0000 Australians are overseas waiting to come home. However on 7 August National Cabinet extended caps on international arrivals until 24 October to allow for quarantine capacity.
The limits are 350 passengers per day for Sydney, 525 per week for Perth, 500 per week for Brisbane and Adelaide. Arrivals are allowed on a case-by-case basis for Canberra and Darwin, with no international flights into Hobart or Melbourne, following quarantine bungles in Victoria.
“National Cabinet agreed that information relating to quarantine capacity and passenger demand would continue to be exchanged and support flexibility within the caps to as much as possible to minimise disruptions to returning Australian citizens and permanent residents,” the PM’s office said at the time.
On Wednesday Australians stuck overseas called for the cap to be lifted, saying the payments were a “joke” that would not solve the problem.
Sarah Rogo wrote on Facebook she was “not sure $1500 (approx. (£700) equates to an economy ticket – I certainly paid more than that, and mine was bought month ago!”
“How does this help those of us who already have tickets that have been cancelled multiple times or are bumped? I don’t need a ticket, I need the borders to reopen.”
“What a joke! wrote Jayme Tam. “I am almost $20k in debt waiting for flights to be refunded that have cancelled on me. I am up to 10 now cancelling! But sure $1500 that I have to repay anyway will cover it. bloody joke!”
Polyn Bungalay-Helwend said she thought it was a “scam”, saying: “This doesn’t solve a lot just putting more people into debt.”
Others were confused about whether the $1500 loan reportedly on offer was all that could be provided.
Tenille Dobson posted the government must be “having a laugh”.
“The solution to the problem is to get rid of the flight caps and allow Australian citizens to return home which is a right not a privilege.
“Stop saying the hospitals and hotels are at full capacity as that is not true. Please act in the best interest of all Australian citizens (not just the ones in Australia) and get rid of the flight caps urgently Scott Morrison.”
Lauren Rebekah Grbich called on the government to “do the obvious and right thing and get rid of your barbaric travel caps. We are all sick and tired of the government wasting time and fighting – just fix it!”
Sarah Nicolson said the caps are “100 per cent the problem”.
“You have a massive backlog of people trying to get home leaving them in vulnerable situations especially if they have given up their accommodation expecting to fly out.
“It’s all good people saying we’ve had loads of time to get back but ultimately everyone’s situation is different and I’m sure the majority of people living and working abroad weren’t just able to up and leave straight away. It’s an absolute mess.”
CAPS TO BE DEBATED IN SENATE
The caps are due to be debated in the Senate on Thursday, with South Australian Senator Penny Wong calling for the government to take urgent action to remove them.
“The number of Australians stranded overseas through no fault of their own is growing every day,” she said. “We’ll move a motion calling on the Government to take urgent action.”
It comes as Dutch Australian UX designer Pieter den Heten has collated a website Remove the Cap calling for caps to be removed and showing Australians stranded around the world.
Meanwhile, a petition calling for flight restrictions to be repealed for returning Australians has reached more than 10,000 signatures.
“Each returning Australian’s case is different, but many are facing financial, emotional, and mental hardship which is further exacerbated by the Federal and State Governments’ restrictions,” the petition states.
It argues Australians overseas are fearful of being “vilified” and is asking the House to inquire about the “harshness of the travel restrictions and the cost of quarantine that is being unfairly put on our shoulders.”
“We seek to have flight restrictions lifted so that we can return home and be reunited with our loved ones. We fully support the quarantine process and see its benefit, but ask that the cost not be shifted to us as many of us are already stretched beyond our means.”
The Australian government said it is working with airlines and other governments to help Aussies return home.
It says Australians overseas in need of consular assistance can register with DFAT via covid19.dfat.gov.au. Further detail about the assistance, including eligibility criteria and how to apply, are available on Smartraveller.gov.au.
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Originally published as ‘What a joke’: Aussies lash cash offer