Why didn’t stranded Aussies return to Australia in March 2020 when the government told them to? Part 1

I have seen this question asked many, many times. There are a variety of answers, which I will cover over several posts. In this post, I will address the difficulty of travelling around the time when the government gave the notice.

Here’s what happened in March. As reported in the media, on 17th March, the government urged Australians overseas to return home. You can find a snapshot of the government web page on that day at Internet Archive.

More specifically, it said:

If you’re already overseas and wish to return to Australia, we recommend you do so as soon as possible by commercial means.

It also said:

If you’re overseas and can’t or don’t want to return to Australia, follow the advice of local authorities. Take care to minimise your risk of exposure to coronavirus including by self-isolating. If you choose to stay, note our ability to provide consular assistance in some places may be limited due to restrictions on movement and other services.

This announcement was followed by airlines cancelling flights, news of Australians stranded overseas, and Government acknowledging the difficulty for these people to get to Australia.

2020-03-17: Australian airlines offer credit for cancelled flights as routes slashed amid coronavirus:

The national carrier announced on Tuesday that 90% of international flights and 60% of domestic flights will be cancelled from the end of the month until the end of May, and Virgin is widely tipped to follow suit within days.

2020-03-18: ‘I just want to go home’: thousands of Australians stranded overseas amid coronavirus chaos:

"Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Dfat) has advised all Australians to return home as soon as possible on commercial flights, but has conceded that for some getting back is currently impossible."

Guardian Australia has been contacted by dozens of Australians caught overseas: in Kenya, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Laos, the US, UK, Germany, Portugal, Spain and Hungary, even en route to Antarctica, seeking passage home.

Chris Selman, a 50-year-old engineer from Perth, is in Anchorage, Alaska, which is “about as far from home as it is possible to be”. He has struggled to change his flights, and has had no communication from airlines, spending more than four hours on hold before giving up.

He said the Australian government’s call for citizens to return was “sensible overall, but the suddenness is troubling and will place more strain on travel”.

2020-03-19: Qantas to cease international flying, tells majority of workforce to take leave:

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Qantas Airways Ltd QAN.AX said on Thursday it will halt all international flights from late March until at least the end of May and is putting two-thirds of its workforce on leave after Australia told citizens not to travel overseas due to the coronavirus.

2020-03-20: Australia Travel Ban: This Is What It Means, As Tasmania–Former Island Prison–Puts Up Bars:

The move is leaving thousands of Australians stranded overseas. Many are caught in a no-mans land between snowballing travel bans in countries in which they are traveling, and the Australian government’s call for them to return home immediately.

Something which has become increasingly hard to do since national carrier Qantas announced it was halting all international flights from the end of March and Virgin Australia too grounds its international fleet. (Qantas is offering refunds in the form of flight credit until March 31 for all domestic and international travel booked up to May 31).

2020-03-20: Thousands of Australians stranded overseas as countries close borders over Covid-19 fears

2020-03-25: Time running out for Australians stranded overseas by coronavirus as airlines ground planes:

Qantas, Jetstar and Virgin Australia have all announced they will be halting their international flights from the end of March, along with many foreign airlines.

The foreign minister, Marise Payne, has urged all citizens abroad to make their way back via commercial airlines but admits not everyone will be able to make it home.

“It may be necessary for some Australians to stay where they are overseas, and as far as practicable remain safe and comfortable,” she said.

Payne says the government will consider supporting Australian airlines to operate non-scheduled services to help return Australian in countries with few commercial travel options, but only if local governments allow it.

She also ruled out the possibility of charted rescue flights.

“We do not have plans for assisted departures, such as those conducted to the epicentre of the Covid-19 outbreak, Wuhan in China and Japan,” said Payne

2020-03-27: Australians trapped in India’s coronavirus lockdown fear running out of food and water:

There are no commercial flights permitted in or out of India until at least 15 April, and Australians fear they will not be able to get home without a government-sponsored repatriation flight, which are being allowed by India’s government.

2020-03-27: Overseas arrivals to Australia to be quarantined in hotels for two weeks over coronavirus:

Morrison said the government continued to help Australians who “have found themselves, through no fault of their own, isolated”, citing its chartered flights from Peru, South America, Hawaii and the United States.

Morrison said it “is the job of the government” to help return or support the 20,000 who remain overseas.

But he warned that Australians who “have had an opportunity [to return] and – even more amazingly, those who continued to leave the country, even after a do not travel advice was given, then I don’t think they could expect their follow Australians to think that the Australian government would be having them high on the list of the people we need to go and support”.

2020-03-31: ‘There are food shortages’: thousands of Australians stuck abroad amid coronavirus plead for help to get home

2020-04-03: British Airways cancels flights to Sydney, Singapore, Hong Kong:

British Airways will suspend flights to Sydney from April 9, with the short-term axe also falling on Hong Kong and Singapore.

2020-04-16: Stranded in the world’s biggest lockdown, Australians say Canberra is ignoring their pleas

A concerted group effort headed by a few expatriates has seen four more flights organised to bring people home following the success of an initial charter flight using Indonesia’s Lion Air from Delhi to Melbourne on April 12. The carrier will also be used for the next group of flights from Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai.

The latter two flights will leave on March 19 and 20 respectively, at a cost of $2200 per person.

Yet Canberra has failed to organise any flights, despite having almost 7000 Australians in India registered with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). There are fears that India, the world’s second most populous country, may yet see a coronavirus catastrophe, particularly in the major cities of Mumbai and Delhi.

A number of Australians in India who spoke to Crikey said that the AHC’s advice had been “very confusing over recent weeks, at one stage advising people to book fares on planes that were later cancelled due to airline imperatives or the government lockdown”.

In a self-congratulatory Facebook post on April 13, Foreign Minister Marise Payne said: “The Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Canberra and posts in many countries are working hard to assist Australians overseas to return”.

The short list of repatriations she is now taking credit for includes “444 Australians on a private charter flight from India for which our High Commission provided extensive logistical support and advice, and obtained necessary approvals in complex circumstances”.

This is despite DFAT clearly saying only last week that there were no charter flights available out of India, that it does not “endorse” the flights and even pointing out Lion Air’s safety record.

The Morrison government’s efforts to help Australians stranded offshore have been embarrassed by a raft of other nations helping their citizens around the world — including Germany, which is conducting a €50 million program of repatriation; the United Kingdom, which has four flights to Goa this week alone; as well as Finland, Bulgaria and many others

The government of Poland has coordinated use of national carrier LOT Polish Airlines for 388 flights to bring 55,000 people home from around the world. Poland have also permitted national of other European nations to board its planes and to collect their nationals once planes have landed in Europe.

Only a handful of government backed flights have been organised by DFAT to repatriate Australians including three from South America — where there are far fewer Australians than in other hot spots.

Unlike may other countries, including significantly-less-wealthy Brazil and India, the Australian government is forcing its citizens to pay for their flights, even to the extent of providing loans to those that do not have resources for the $2000-plus fares.

The government has not fully co-opted either Qantas or Virgin Australia. Both airlines are seeking massive taxpayer-funded bailouts. Reports have suggested that Qantas has struggled to find staff willing to man charter planes due to the risk of crew catching COVID-19 on recent flights.

DFAT continues to advise that “the government strongly urges all Australians who wish to come home and who have access to commercial or charter flights, to do so now, without delay”.

The problem is now, from India and an increasing number of destinations popular with Australians such as Thailand, there are no flights to catch — only charters that the government appears more reticent than most to help organise.

Conclusion

I hope by now you understand how flawed this argument against stranded Aussies is, as it amounts to asking someone to do something near impossible, and blame them for "not following the advice" when they failed.

I have not seen the government explicitly laying the blame on stranded Aussies using this argument, but Morrison implied such blame, and the government also has not condemned such toxic sentiment from the media and the public:

"There’s been many opportunities for people to return. If they’re choosing to do so now they’ve obviously delayed that decision for a period."

– Scott Morrison, July 2020

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