Morrison abandons stranded Aussies

Australians offshore

There are thousands of Australian citizens currently trapped outside Australia.  The Australian press is currently touting figures around 30 thousand, based on the numbers of people registered with DFAT as requiring help.  However, sources within DFAT are also canvassing the possibility that the numbers may be higher than 50 thousand in both Europe and South East Asia, and possibly as many as 25 thousand in North America.

This chart, without a data source, has been circulated by Kristina Keneally

This chart of the Australian diaspora, circa 2018, points to potentially a far larger number of Australians wanting or needing to come home

Earlier this year when COVID19 first broke after weeks of ‘I’m attending the football this Saturday night’ and ‘The Grand Prix will go ahead’ the Federal Government did certainly issue advice for all offshore Australians to return home as soon as possible.  For numerous Australians, for a range of reasons, returning to Australia immediately was not possible.   Those reasons often included:

  • Sick or dying relatives or loved ones
  • Caring responsibilities
  • Greater risks from travelling at that time than from remaining where they were
  • Legal or contractual reasons not to return to Australia
  • Cost

After March those Australians have largely been left to their own devices.  They have formed a range of websites and Facebook pages, to share their experiences and offer each other moral support.  Some of the stories verge on tragic.  Flights booked but repeatedly cancelled, airlines charging astronomical fares for seats or bouncing economy ticketholders to fit in some more business class, families slowly running out of money, sleeping on friends couches or in hostels, accessing the social welfare systems of other countries trying to make sure they can eat.

Their circumstances have received scant media coverage.

They have been remembered by ALP Shadow Minister for Home Affairs, Kristina Keneally, and Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong, who have continued to try and raise their plight with the Federal Government.  They have had minimal success.  However they have pressured the government into announcing, a few weeks ago, that it was organising additional flights.  The Prime Minister’s October 16 announcement referred to 8 flights from London, New Delhi & Johannesburg, each carrying 175 people, potentially bringing 5000 home over 6 months  – if more than 8 flights are organised.

Whichever way you look at it that leaves a lot of Australians stuck offshore for a long time to come.

What is ‘support’ for Australians?

Now a lot of Australians probably assume that those Australians can get some sort of support from the local Australian embassy wherever those Australians are.  Those Australians are possibly thinking to themselves ‘that is what embassies do’…..they help the nationals of their country in places far away.

A lot of those Australians are possibly thinking that any affected Australians can probably go to a website and register easily, with the click of a button, or a short chat on the phone maybe after providing their details.  They are probably also thinking that once registered the embassy will keep in touch with registered Australians, make sure their circumstances are OK, possibly be a source of emergency support, and be in a position to coordinate when they can leave wherever they are, and return to Australia.

That would all be part of ‘support’ wouldn’t it?  The same as we ‘support’ pensioners, or the disadvantaged.  The same as we fly people back from Tsunamis and earthquake zones, or get people out of somewhere when a civil war breaks out.  The same way we have unveiled JobKeeper and JobSeeker, splashing about billions in the face of a crisis.  Surely we would be supporting these people, wouldn’t we?  They are Australians, after all. We want to make sure they are OK.

Well, that isn’t what those offshore Australians are dealing with.  This is my experience.

My wife and daughter

My wife and daughter went offshore in mid 2019.  My mother in law had become progressively unwell in Russia, and my wife went to be with her for an operation.  The operation revealed that she had a major Stage IV cancer and didn’t have long to live.  She passed away in late 2019.

Russian custom is for the family to assemble at some point a month or two down the track, and Russian probate laws effectively prevent any disposal of family assets within 6 months of death.  At that point we thought some extra Russian and piano lessons for my daughter, I will look after my son here in Australia, and we will all be back together in late March or April 2020.  We could cope with it.

When the virus outbreak occurred in China I noticed that Russia closed its borders with China in late January.  At that stage Australia still had a Prime Minister, health officials and State Premiers saying there was little risk to Australia.

The announcement of Australia’s border being closed in March caught us in the situation of determining, without knowing how serious the virus would be, whether my wife and daughter were safer in Russia, or if they would be OK travelling to Australia – with stations and airports notable high risk zones.  We decided they could stay where they were, and patiently wait things out.  They were initially in my wife’s mother’s apartment, and then afterward we had friends we could stay with elsewhere in Russia, and friends in Germany and the UK they could stay with when we could organise a route out.  We are in touch most nights by skype or whatsapp.  My wife can study offshore (remotely from an Australian university).  My daughter has been able to do remote classes from Australia and classes in Russia.  My son has been learning a lot about personal responsibility vis household chores, and coming to terms with prolonged exposure to dad’s cooking.

Making contact with Offshore Australians

Throughout this time my wife has been linking up with other Australians via the web and on Facebook, and relating to me with increasing concern about the plight some of them have been facing.  Some of them are literally unfolding tragedies – Families living in hostels and off the generosity of complete strangers in lands far from home.  Traumatised children, financial stress, and a mounting sense that Australian consular and embassy staff could not give a rats toss about them.

More concerning has been vague sense that an Australian government was blaming them for their predicament, while at the same time using their circumstance as a lever to force Australian states to open up to foreign students and tourists.  And this is on top of what appears to be a posture of penny pinching niggardliness towards them in the face of so many billions being thrown about with JobKeeper that Australian corporates are posting record profits and Australian executives are pocketing multimillion dollar bonus payments.

Trying to get information about flights returning to Australia

When the government announced there would be flights to return people to Australia my wife and I thought it would be an idea to try and get information on them.  This week my wife has called the Australian embassy in Moscow to see what they could tell her.

Her experience reflected what she had been told was the experience of other Australians contacting other embassies elsewhere.  They didn’t want to help, they didn’t want to provide any information, and were all about trying to put the pressure for the circumstance back on my wife.

But they did fob my wife off towards the airlines. From there, of course, a chat with Qatar initially (who had no information whatsoever) led to QANTAS. Alas to no avail…..

For my part I tried to call QANTAS in Australia and discovered that their 131313 number opens up with

‘For travel arrangements, including classic flight rewards or upgrades – Press 1

For Frequent flyer programme, QANTAS  club etc – Press 2

For Todays flight arrival and departure times – Press 3

To hear these options again – Press 0’

And quite deliberately leads to an endless loop without the possibility of talking to anyone for information  – I couldn’t help but think ‘welcome to contemporary Australian customer service’.

After delving around on the DFAT and smart traveller site for those in need of consular assistance my wife eventually made contact with someone via skype.  Unfortunately it was pretty depressing, if you are an Australian in Russia.

So this is what those offshore Australians are currently experiencing.  A complete bureaucratic runaround, consular neglect, and no Australian administrative ‘front foot’ in terms of taking leadership and addressing the situation.  Just a blind fob the ‘customer’ off somewhere else mentality.

Like just how difficult would it be for DFAT, and the Prime Ministers website to have a large (red?) button somewhere prominent stating ‘Are you a stranded Australian? Click here to access support!’ or those phone bank messages when you call help lines, could they have a recorded message ‘If you are an Australian  currently trapped offshore Press 6 to speak to someone who can provide advice.’?  Or could QANTAS easily organise on their web site or customer contact lines a straightforward ‘Offshore Australians click here for flight advice’ or ‘Press 4 for emergency flight return to Australia support’.  Why doesn’t the Prime Minister’s website have a clear and unambiguous message ‘Stranded Aussies, we are with you – Click here for support’ ? – Does he not understand the predicament these people are in? Are his human sympathy attributes that diminished? Will he be looking to shake their hands at some point? The only conclusion those stranded Australians can draw is that their government and their national airline, and their Prime Minister, aren’t that concerned about their situation.

At this point I would note that there will be plenty of people in a worse predicament than my wife.  She has money to survive, we have friends in Russia and across Europe, and in the UK, who have already indicated that they will provide a place to stay at any point we need it.  If my daughter is showing signs of what psychologists tell me is stress, she can at least be in touch with dad all day long, and dad can at least organise for something fun for her to do.  My heart goes out to those who are literally counting every last cent or have really run out of money and have no work or way to support themselves, as well as to those holed up on some strangers couch, in hostels, and in airports awaiting a chance to get home.  Some of those guys really will be worrying about how much longer they can take this…….

If 175 people is the current capacity of flights, then why aren’t flights being organised to every last city where there are 175 Australians, and advice to them being issued to get themselves ready?

Is this what being an Australian citizen means?

None of the above should be interpreted as suggesting that Australia’s borders should be opened.  For my part I tend to agree they should remain closed for quite some time to come.  But in saying that I do think Australians trapped overseas should be supported and that they should be flown home as soon as possible.

It isn’t as though there is not capacity to get them to Australia.  There are grounded aircraft all over the country, and easily accessible aircraft all over the world right now.  There are countless flight crews and maintenance personnel who are currently stood down who would be back at work at a moments notice to make those aircraft available for flights.  There are pilots and cabin crew.  What there isn’t, is will to make it happen.  And right at the start, there isn’t political will.

There are a vast number of aircraft sitting on the ground having been flown into Alice Springs within the last 6 months – that’s if there aren’t enough operational aircraft not doing all that much – and there would be some quite skilled staff  who haven’t done all that much in a while who may appreciate a short term contract flying Australians home.

Our Federal Government – Prime Minister Scott Morrison at the forefront – wants us to think that they are limited by the availability of quarantine places controlled by the states – with a finger of blame being pointed at Victoria.  But this is specious nonsense.  The Federal government flew Australian citizens out of Wuhan earlier this year to Christmas Island for quarantine, and could easily make places available at that facility in short order.  Similarly it has the ability to rapidly reconfigure facilities at Woomera and a number of remote Defence facilities in WA and NT.  There are also other remote mining camps – like Howard Springs – where many more Australians could be brought in more quickly than they are.  Nobody has said that these people need to be put up in hotel accommodation. There is little doubt that if these people were offered the chance to do their time in quarantine at a makeshift facility, then plenty would take the relative discomfort.

Indeed if capacity is an issue, then why not use Christmas Island again?   A few years ago there were more than 2400 refugees being processed there.  And there were more than 1000 being processed at Manus Island and Nauru as well.  It isn’t as though being put though 2 weeks quarantine is like an indefinite spell in asylum seeker lala land, and bringing Australians home is a far more worthy use to put those sites to.

This is a Federal government decision not to make the additional quarantine places available.  The reason it isn’t doing more is obvious.  It wants to force the states to make more flexible quarantine options available so that it can commence permitting students and possibly tourists back in, and it cannot do that without State agreement.  It also hasn’t approached the States to ask about their scope to take back returning Australian residents from that State for quarantine.   A state being asked to consider expanding quarantine for tourists or students may well give one answer, and a completely different answer when asked to arrange accommodation for some of its own returning residents with relatives in the State. The Federal Government doesn’t want to hear that the States will do something for their returning residents, that they don’t want to do for foreign students and possibly tourists.  The Federal Government, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison, is holding offshore Australians to ransom.

But the real implication of this treatment isn’t just offshore Australians needing support.

A lot of people would, quite plausibly, be thinking this doesn’t affect them, and isn’t their issue to wade in on.  And that is a reasonable approach.  But the issue with it is that the same behaviours and approaches adopted by our Commonwealth government on this issue, are observably being applied elsewhere.  The pressuring and blaming of people seeking help, the administrative obfuscation, and the political blame shifting, as well as complete issue avoidance.  The niggardliness towards some against the backdrop of government funded corporate bonuses for others.

The first thing to think about is administrative ‘service delivery’ as it is euphemistically called in the public sector.  Across a range of government services – from the ATO to the NDIS and including any form of support from Services Australia (so that would be your Medicare, pensions, disability payments, education or healthcare support etc) – entire systems are in place to ensure that ordinary Australians cannot do anything online, and cannot speak to anyone via phone which isn’t precisely in accordance with the ‘service’ a department wants to provide, in exactly the circumstances that department wants to provide it – and there is all too often no way to argue for something at variance, or more. Those systems don’t have the flexibility and the ability to comprehend that individual circumstances will fall outside of the parameters the department or organisation wants to set. And they dont want to look at circumstances, or specific cases, because this requires consideration, and judgement and data, and can be expensive – and it requires politicians and public servants to be accountable.  The lack of such administrative accountability leads to an access straitjacket excluding some.  It gives rise to Australians looking for support concluding that the organisations ostensibly there to provide such support don’t want to engage with them about what their support needs are, and are essentially about bullshitting them.

The experience of those offshore Australians also provides a good sighter on what can happen when the politicians want to deliberately convey an impression but don’t want to follow through on it………  The Prime Minister makes the announcement, duly carried though Australia’s press, and those directly affected can’t effect what he wants to convey the impression they can or can’t get advice about what he says now exists…how good is that, eh!

But back to those offshore Australians wanting to return home

But to conclude with those Australians currently trapped offshore.  The Australian Commonwealth government should be creating as many quarantine places as it can and organising charter flights (or the RAAF in some places if need be) to bring them home, and get them back into our community.  In the context of the billions being slapped about, and underpinning multi million dollar corporate bonuses, that government should also be making sure that costs for those affected Australians are minimal, if not free.  It should be reminding those Australians that their Australian passport is precious, and that the care of the holders of those passports is the first priority of all Australian governments regardless of ideology.  Most of all it should be stating overtly that it will not stand idly by and bureaucratically look the other way – effectively ‘ghosting’ Australians – when doing so is traumatising them. That would be un-Australian, wouldn’t it?

Let’s just get it done.

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  1. ‘Are his human sympathy attributes that diminished?’
    No, they’re not diminished, they were just never there in the first place. Socipaths don’t care if its not them.
    If he (or his masters) can’t make a buck from it, its not happening. Simples. The international students and migrants however…..

  2. The90kwbeastMEMBER

    This is a touching & import topic Gunna, and you’ve given it great thought.

    Without detracting from that, some feedback, as a general I find many of your posts and articles wordy and meandering. I want to hear your thoughts but less is more 🙂

  3. They need to make their way to Nepal and disguise themselves as young desperate students that want to study in Australia. They then need to get in touch with an Australia Study Visa Consultant (there will be agents in the area) and in broken English tell them you want to study in Australia and also that you have a bit of money and wondering if it is legal to buy a property as well.
    You will be on a private jet in a month.

  4. RobotSenseiMEMBER

    Get the next email out. There is 18 months until the next fed election. We should get organised.

  5. The resistance to Australians returning is due to their lofty expectations of recieving a living wage and safe working conditions.

  6. SoCalSurfCreeperMEMBER

    There are enough seats from USA, although the prices are double normal. The Aussies having the toughest time getting back are in Europe, Middle East, Africa, some parts of Asia, South America. I know this as I joined online forums devoted to the topic when I travelled from USA (and back again) in August and September. As far as I know United have flown from San Francisco almost every single day of the pandemic. They recently added the LA flight 3 times a week. More than can be said for Qantas, who chucked in the towel at the first sign of trouble.

    • The Australian government only demanded Qantas to maintain domestic routes, despite giving them AUD 800 million dollars. (about 500 million through JobKeeper). US airline got 25 billions USD from their government.

  7. I had to visit overseas with my family due to death of close family member, just got back a week ago and in quarantine now. I was stuck overseas for couple of months and the experience has been quite a shock. Not only the DFAT not offered any help, they actively hindered attempts i made via overseas contacts to secure tickets for my family on limited flights operating out of the country. I am trying to see if I can make FOI request to see what happened behind the scene. The only reason i am back is i could outbid most of others (through maxing out my credit cards) to secure tix for my family. I know it was selfish thing to do but when your own government has left you stranded and washed their hand off any responsibility, it was basically everyone to themselves overseas and i needed to get my family to safety. Then to have the Canadian’s, the British, the Americans and the euro’s flying their citizens to safety, the Australian passport is not as valuable as it once seemed.
    My advise to anyone in similar circumstances is to bite the bullet and pay whatever it takes if you can afford to if you dont want to be stranded overseas for months. No one will lift a finger to help, you asked for it when you decided to go overseas to visit a dying relative, or attend a funereal or had contractual agreement you couldn’t get out at a moments notice when your Prime minister asked.
    Reading through the Australians stranded overseas facebook group is depressing, something you’d never expect citizens for a 1st world democracy to endure.

    • Sorry to hear about your troubles, this country is well on the road to becoming a pathetic banana republic, as DLS says we’re really just another narco-state.

  8. Here’s another fun filled fact for the day.

    The Liberal Party’s Robodebt catastrophe has been repsonsible for MORE suicides amongst Australians than COVID 19. The Aussies most in need of assistance, driven into the ground by this govt.

    And the silence all round is deafening.

    • A friend applied for a contracting job a couple of years ago (I think), turned out it was literally a debt collection job, ringing people with robodebts and demanding they agree to go on repayment plans. This was well AFTER the courts had ruled robodebt illegal. I said, “but robodebt’s illegal, how can the government be hiring people specifically to continue enforcing an illegal policy?” Then she said something similar in the interview. She didn’t get the job. But others definitely did.

    • GunnamattaMEMBER

      Welcone to the fragmentation of contemporary Australia.

      If you arent the right demographic you might not just not get representation, but might even be expendable

  9. I had a family member in Russia who needed to get back home, and she found that the Australian Ambassador to Russia, Graeme Meehan, had fled the country when Covid hit. Here’s his twitter account:

    AFAIK, he has still not returned. The rest of the staff there are Russians.

    The only way we could resolve problems was to approach the visa people here in Australia. The staff over there were hopeless and just stonewalled all enquiries in typical soviet bureaucratic fashion.

  10. For many expat Aussies that I know their main reason for not returning immediately was the kids schooling.
    It may sound stupid given that many schools in the Northern Hemisphere closed early and didn’t open until August/Sept but back in March the Australian school year had already started and there just weren’t spots available at most Private schools.
    Why private schools you might ask: well basically because most returning Aussies (especially those with High school aged kids) would be trying to get their kids into schools which taught the same (or a very similar) curriculum. Messing up a kids school environment (course of study) is probably not a major disruption below year 9 but above year 9 it starts to get serious.
    Most Australian schools are also not very good at incorporating 3rd / 4th culture kids (if they even know what this means). As an example one of my own kids was given detention (on several occasions) for talking with a ridiculous Texan accent (he was born in Dallas). Then there are aspects like disagreeing with the content in the curriculum, because it simply doesn’t gel with the lived experience of the kid (or maybe that which the last school taught).
    Anyway schooling is the number one reason why most of my expat friends delayed their returns.

    • Shades of MessinaMEMBER

      Even worse if you wanted your kids to go to the local public school given you need to have a residential address in the catchment.

      Good luck finding rental accommodation in the middle of the pandemic, illegal to kick tenants out of your rented home, and a few insurance providers stopped offering tenant insurance while the rental payment pause was on leading to some stock being pulled.

      Damned if you do and dammed if you don’t.

      Pretty telling that a large vein of Aussies believe it was expats fault for not returning when they had the chance. We have become a very nasty, brutal and selfish country.

    • Anyway schooling is the number one reason why most of my expat friends delayed their returns.

      Lots of expats probably remained employed through the first few months of COVID then found themselves unemployed at a later date. Spend a month or two looking for work locally (depending on what the visa allows) and are now looking to return.

      Pretty much guarantee most of the people in the “But wHY hAvEN’t tHEY AlreADy cOMe HOmE” crowd have never had to move house with more than they can fit in the back of a car, let alone with a family, let alone internationally.

      • Agree completely.
        Many returning expats have no idea where they’ll live, it sort of depends on where they can get a job.
        So to move and stay locally in a hotel (with the whole family) is just insanity.
        You need to get things sorted out in a progressive fashion
        Schools should be an easy one to tick off but as others have indicated both the local high schools and the Catholic schools won’t enroll your kids until you have a local (in district address) …when you say you don’t have any Australian address they think you’re taking the pi55.
        Logically returning expats should be able to enroll in a school that’s somewhere in the general area that they’re considering but this isn’t how it works in Australia.
        And then there’s work, Interviews, rejections next round and next round, it is especially difficulty to get managerial jobs in Australia if your only experience is OS basically you’re just not in the loop.
        And then there’s temporary furnished accommodation because your stuff takes 6 to 8 weeks to get to Australia (especially with Covid processing / transportation delays)

        Yep these heartless ba5tards that say expat should have all returned the week after the government told them too are beyond clueless.

  11. I understand the frustrations and empathise with those stuck overseas, the government has failed you and DFAT is completely abdicating its mandate.

    My only caution is those who expect to be able to travel freely and easily as occurred prior to COVID perhaps have not fully grasped the scale of this issue globally and the impacts it has had to countries domestic and international air travel. Many of these people perhaps thought it would be over quickly, or “couldn’t be that bad”. As much as I hate Scomo he did say to people visiting “If you cannot support yourself, its time to go home”. He also said “For Australian’s overseas, its time to come home” and DFAT issued the same warnings. At what point does personal responsibility become part of this and at what point is the government no longer obliged to bail people out?

    • Shades of MessinaMEMBER

      There is a difference between those who chose to exit Australia during the pandemic and those who were already overseas and couldn’t return (for a number of reasons).

      Sounds like most standed punters would be happy to cover the costs of a chartered Qantas plane but it appears all too hard to organise. 300 flights should do it.

      Quite shameful that our national carrier is not more vocal about trying to resolve this situation – the “Spirit of Australia” moniker has never been more apt.

      • Look at the chart produced by Keneally – it clearly shows a ramp from August to October of people wanting to come home. People were warned in March. Not saying they shouldn’t be helped, they absolutely should but there is also the element of ignoring warnings and participating in self rescue.

        • GunnamattaMEMBER

          Could i just make the point vis that chart.

          It reflects (I think – there is no data source mentioned) the numbers of Australians registered with DFAT as being abroad and being desirous of assistance to get home.

          I can tell you for a fact that within the last week – until i approached a mate inside DFAT about how i would ‘register’ for one of these flights – that there was no pointer to it from anywhere on the DFAT site.

          I am sure numbers are going up – but think it because large numbers of offshore Australians have been unaware of there being a capacity to ‘register’ until recently.

        • Is it really that hard to imagine that people who may have remained employed throughout the first 6 months of the year now find themselves unemployed and need to return ?

        • Shades of MessinaMEMBER

          Probably shows a ramp up as people lost their jobs and/or ran out of money to sustain themselves offshore as they couldn’t get on flights.

          I think by and large they did the right thing staying where they were and obviously their circumstances have changed.

          Those who left Oz later on in the piece probably can’t complain too much given the full scale of what was happening was clear.

    • innocent bystanderMEMBER

      I would agree with that.
      During times of upheaval there is no such thing as perfect information or fully competent bureaucrats let alone functioning infrastructure – sometimes you just have to read the room and gtfo.
      I had reason to do that a couple of times due to civil/political unrest in pre-internet days – info was probably easier to get from the outside looking in (I found out much later); I am not sure it is any easier these days with so much info coming at you, often contradictory, always incomplete. I know I wasn’t thinking about the best home country school zones at the time, best I could manage was which compass direction to choose.

  12. Fck our Federal Government are a waste of space. This country is being destroyed by the LNP for benefit of big business.