For the last few years, I have flitted between Thailand and Australia regularly with regular easy travel across Asia, the Pacific and other destinations. For the last five years, I have averaged 75 plane flights a year- (about 6 a month) for business and or recreation. Many of those trips are documented in this blog.
I definitely took the privilege of travel for granted. My biggest inconveniences prior to February 2020 were usually dodging long immigration queues. It is an understatement to say CVID19 changed all that. For two months the furthest I went from my home was zero kilometres (5miles). Now I venture as far as ten kilometres (six miles!) and have even now been 100 km from home! For all of the strangeness of the year, I never imagined that I could not easily return to my country of citizenship: Australia.
On March 20th, 2020, Australia, like many countries, sealed its borders to non citizens and non residents. This was followed on 25 March by a mandatory exit ban prohibiting Australians from leaving Australia.
The Australian government also issued (almost simultaneously) three pieces of travel advice. These were not orders as some have suggested- as some have suggested- they were advisory
- Australians who were abroad and planned to return, were advised on March 17 that they should do so as soon as possible via commercial flights.
- A “Do not Travel: Alert for every country in the world made on March 18. This was unprecedented in the country’s travel warning system
- Australians overseas told to “shelter in place” and follow local warnings and advice if they could not return
Where the Aussies were
On the day of the border closure, there were between 800,000 and 1.3 million Australians overseas including tourists, expatriate workers, retirees, volunteers, employees and dual citizens. This is equivalent to about 5% of the population of Australia. This includes 800,000 Australians are on short term trips and another 300 to 500 thousand who are living overseas. In the UK alone, 200,000 Aussies are estimated to be usually there. 100,000 live in USA plus about 100,000 Aussies a month go to the USA for short term trips. Many are found in Canada.
Large populations of Aussies live across Asia in China, Japan, Singapore, Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Philippines. They can be found across Europe particularly Italy, Greece and Ireland.
Qantas, Jetstar and Virgin slashed their international capacity in March. Other airlines including Singapore, Cathay, Thai, Malaysia,reduced or suspended services to Australia throughout March and April. In fact incoming seat capacity into Australia fell by to seats. As a result, many Aussies with tickets home, found their flights cancelled and they were stuck in the original ports or en route.
People had to make decisions fast, based on what we knew, where their families were, what their employment, housing and schooling situations were. Others had those decisions made for them as employers made them redundant, schools and universities closed or governments shut down internal travel routes. People were stuck in countries with no flights out, no income and no ease of movement.
I was lucky. I am one of those who chose to shelter in place at my Thailand home. This meant a frantic dash from the USA back to Thailand before all borders closed. If I had not done this, I would have been separated from family for months.
Obstacles to Returning to Australia
Between 13 March and 10 July, about 357,000 citizens and permanent residents returned to Australia but there have not been enough seats to get all the Aussies who want to return home. There must still be about 500,000 a Australian citizens still outside the country. Many have tried to return multiple times but have had flights cancelled multiple, multiple times.
In June, the Australian state and Federal government agreed to a process of a 14-day mandatory quarantine in hotels for returnees. Initially this quarantine free. After it was realised that the situation was going to last a much longer time than originally thought ongoing, a charge of $A3000 to $5000 for two weeks compulsory quarantine was introduced in July. This has angered many who feel this is an unfair imposition introduced with no warning
In July, the Australian government also capped the number of people who can come into Australia to 4000 people a week. This was raised to 6000 a week in mid September.
You can immediately see that more Australians want to return home than can be accommodated. Demand for seats has risen but airlines can only carry a limited number of passengers. To help pay for their costs, airlines are trying to steer people to business- and first-class seats. Many Aussies simply cannot afford to get home even if they could find a seat. In the first week of September, more than 140 international flights with about 30,000 seats arrived into Australia, but of course, only 4,000 people flew in.
The number of Australians now wanting to come home immediately is subject to disagreement. Figures ranging from 25,000 to 100,000 are bandied about. As Christmas and the New Year approach and Australians have their contracts expire, more will want to come come home- and won’t be able to.
I have chosen to stay where I am but am conscious that I cannot easily get back to Australia if I want to. That is a very strange situation for a citizen.
What to do
If you are an Australian and want to return:
- Register with Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade
- Register with your local Australian embassy. Many are organising repat fights home or know when seats are available on flights
- Lobby your local Australian MP to get their government to lift the caps and allow you back into your country.
- Join one of the groups of Australians who are campaigning on this