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Image: Recently, the national cabinet decided to implement a travel cap on international arrivals, cutting the number of Australians returning by at least 4,000 a week. Photograph: James D Morgan/Getty Images

When Australia urged its citizens overseas who wished to return to do so “as soon as possible” on 17 March, it warned that travel was becoming more “complex and unpredictable”.

But Australian expats who felt it safer to “ride out” the Covid-19 crisis in their new home country probably never expected that Australia would make it harder for its own citizens to return.

On Friday the national cabinet decided to more than halve the number of overseas flights, cutting the number of Australians who can return home by at least 4,000 a week.

The decision has concerned many Australian expats who contacted Guardian Australia explaining they had not returned in March because of their work, including foreign health services and the aid sector, or fear of contracting coronavirus in transit, flight cancellations, and complications ranging from pregnancy to pets.

Related: Coronavirus Victoria: locked-down Melbourne residents urged to wear face masks outside home amid 288 new cases

The decision followed days of senior politicians including Scott Morrison, New South Wales premier Gladys Berejiklian, and federal finance minister Mathias Cormann, arguing these Australians should have come home in March.

“There have been many opportunities for people to return,” Morrison said on Thursday. “If they’re choosing to do so now they’ve obviously delayed that decision for a period.”

‘People are in limbo’

For expats such as Christina Lawrence, the argument “both lacks empathy and makes no practical sense … [the idea it] has somehow been a ‘choice’ to return now and not earlier, is completely incorrect”.

Lawrence and her husband were preparing to move back to Australia in early April after seven-and-a-half years in the US, but were delayed by cancelled Qantas flights, stay-in-place orders and the difficulty of bringing their cats back to Australia.

Pets are a common complication because Australia only allows them in through one port, Melbourne, to complete quarantine at a facility in Mickleham.

After selling their house, the couple lived in a motor home for three months during which time they “received little to no support from the Australian government”, Lawrence says, before the couple returned home on 30 June – ahead of the new limitation to apply from Monday. Their cats are now stranded in quarantine in Melbourne.

Others, like Emily Colston, cite the original Australian government advice that those living and working overseas may have the support, accommodation and income to stay – which she interpreted to mean “settled expats should stay put and ride it out”.

Colston argues that if Australian expats had all tried to rush home at once in March, “the system would have been completely overwhelmed at the outset and we probably would have ended up with a far worse first-wave outcome in Australia”.

Australians should have a right to come back to their own country

Colston lived in France for five years with her fiancé before his job was made redundant in January – but the couple and their three-year-old son were stuck in Alsace because “when France went into full lockdown, any home move was not permitted”.

For months, Colston, who is also pregnant, only left the house for essential medical appointments while her fiancé did the fortnightly food shop.

When France’s lockdown eased, they flew from Zurich on 1 July – by which stage Colston was 31 weeks and five days pregnant – and made it back to Australia.

“If [Australia’s] restrictions had started to come in a few days earlier it would have been disastrous for us,” she says.

‘The difficulty has been the uncertainty’

Expats still living overseas are concerned the cap may impact them if they need to return to Australia for reasons outside their control – such as an illness or death in the family.

Some visas such as the US’s E-3 visa also require people to return home and reapply to enter the US – which is the reason one former Liberal staffer contacted Guardian Australia from hotel quarantine in Sydney’s Sheraton on Hyde Park.

“We would’ve had to give up our jobs to move back to Australia in March with no job,” he says. “That’s ridiculous, to expect someone to give up a job they have overseas.”

“If there’s a cap and a more limited number of flights back – economics dictate it would be more expensive and then you have to pay for your own quarantine.

I didn’t wait this long because I wanted to

“I didn’t wait this long because I wanted to – it would be punishing people because their circumstances changed.”

Craig and Lisa Fotheringham are also concerned about the changes, the couple angrily wrote to Berejiklian urging her not to adopt “draconian measures to counter a policy-failure in a hotel quarantine situation in Victoria” as a knee-jerk response.

The Fotheringhams want to come home in August because coronavirus restrictions are relaxing in Australia and say people “have reasonable expectations to be able to return”.

“We’ve not returned up till this point because we are key workers, in a large retail bank, and the NHS respectively.”

Another Australian who stayed overseas for the best of reasons is Felix Eldridge, who has worked in Lebanon doing government outreach for the UNHCR for the last 18 months.

When the sole route out of Lebanon, Beirut airport, closed within days of the Australian government warning in March, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade organised several evacuation flights for stranded Australians – but Eldridge did not join them.

Related: Australian Border Force grants UK doctor permission to fly home to work

“The people we work with are in an extremely difficult situation, the idea of me leaving when it was not possible for the UNHCR to replace me – I wasn’t prepared to consider it,” he says.

After Beirut airport finally reopened on 1 July, Eldridge booked a flight for 19 July from Beirut to Sydney via Dubai but is at-risk of having the flight cancelled or delayed due to the changes, a prospect he says is “disappointing and concerning”.

But Eldridge understands why national cabinet has made the decision. “I fully support the Australian government doing what it can to protect Australians … I don’t place myself above the needs of the country.”

“The difficulty has been the uncertainty. I’ve gotten used to the Lebanese government changing its mind about reopening the airport – it’s happened a few times … Now we’re facing the same thing from the Australian side.”

By Paul Karp on July 12, 2020. This article was published with the permission of Inkl.com and originally appeared in The Guardian AU


22 July 2020
Australian expats who felt it safer to “ride out” the Covid-19 crisis in their new home country probably never expected that Australia would make it harder for its own citizens to return.


Choice Updates
22 July 2020
Australia will halve the number of citizens allowed to return home from overseas each week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Friday 10 July 2020, as authorities struggle to contain a COVID-19 outbreak in the country's second most populous state. Since March, Australia has allowed only citizens and permanent residents to enter the country. Once they arrive, they enter a mandatory 14-day quarantine in hotels, which is paid for by state governments. Morrison said from Monday, Australia will cap the figures at 4,000 people each week. Those who return will also have to pay for their quarantine stays. "The decision that we took... was to ensure that we could put our focus on the resources needed to do the testing and tracing and not have to have resources diverted to other tasks," Morrison told reporters in Canberra after a meeting of the national cabinet. Neighbouring New Zealand enacted measures earlier this week to limit the number of citizens returning home to reduce the burden on its overflowing quarantine facilities. SECOND LOCKDOWN The announcement of new travel restrictions comes days after Victoria state reimposed lockdowns in the country's second largest city, Melbourne. The lockdown will last for six weeks following a surge in coronavirus cases linked to social distancing breaches in hotels where returned travellers were held in quarantine. The flare-up has forced 5 million Australians to stay home for all but essential business, led the rest of Australia's states to ban Victorians from entering, and dealt a blow to Australia's economic recovery.