Australian Refugees.

I have read my fair share of WWII novels and watched the odd movie, but I never thought I would actually come to understand how it feels to be separated from your loved ones for months on end with no idea when we’ll be reunited.

For the past seven months my husband and I have been separated, not through choice. I in Australia, at home and my husband in the UK, working. In March, Peter’s return flight ticket was cancelled, as were thousands of others due to COVID restrictions. So began a succession of unsuccessful flight bookings.

The first two successful bookings had us anticipating a reunion. An end to the half hour snap shots of conversations because of the time difference. As the number of cancelled bookings grew each departure date was approached with apprehension.

We may not be at war, separated by violence and prejudice, but each loss felt akin to the grieving of losing a loved one. Every booking that didn’t eventuate in a flight home, chipped away at my hope that the insufferable separation would end.

As rhetoric grew at home it began to feel like a war. Especially when politicians fuelled the division between the Australian’s at home and those stranded overseas with tales of COVID being rampant on planes.

Many Australians safely protected by the Government’s actions questioned why stranded Australians just didn’t catch a plane home. I too asked this. What I discovered that the Government’s reduction on entries results in airlines travelling with less than 25% capacity. In order to cover costs, airlines fill the expensive seats first.

Compound this with the two days’ notice Australian Government gives to airlines of final entry numbers. Naturally airlines cancel the cheaper seats first.

We didn’t identify this formula until our fifth cancelled booking. Our frustration grew and airlines continued to sell economy seats knowing many if not all would be cancelled.

Many other changes to travel had occurred due to COVID so we booked through an Australian Travel Agent. We bought a business class ticket which was the same price a return flight ticket pre pandemic.

Yet another month’s wait. I wasn’t leaving anything to chance and applied for Peter to be exempt from Hotel Quarantine based on my deteriorating mental health. If successful, Peter would not be included in the Hotel Quarantine numbers and removed from the cap.

When the date of this flight passed the 48-hour mark, our excitement grew. Peter checked in. Anticipation increased, despite not receiving a decision about the exemption. Two hours after checking in, Peter asleep in the UK, I received an email from United Airlines advising a full refund or credit for Peter’s flight was offered. They provided a link. Letters and words floated around before my eyes; I was unable to make sense.

A Presidential Proclamation prohibited entry to the US for any passenger travelling from the UK. Even for those transiting through airports.

I called Peter. We were distraught. I called the Australian Travel Agents. The refund would be received in 12 weeks. I pointed out the Proclamation had been in place for over six months, but the cancellation fee would not be waived.

We seriously considered the dodgy charter flight offer we received on Facebook.

Trawling the internet for the next available flight, the earliest affordable one was ten weeks away.

I called Qatar Airlines. They had one seat the day Peter had expected to fly. The catch: he needed a negative COVID-19 test (PCR) at check in. This was impossible. Results were not received for over 48 hours.

I decided that if Qatar had last minute seats so would other airlines.

Emirates flew through UAE. Checking the restrictions at Dubai airport there was conflicting advice regarding PCR. Emirates did not require a PCR for transiting passengers. Dubai airport did. It was the only ticket before December. A business class ticket, the cost — three times more than the one just cancelled. We used our savings. And crossed our fingers.

Time slowed as I waited on the other side of the world to hear whether Peter would be permitted to board. When he messaged me from the departures lounge with both boarding cards, I allowed myself to believe he was coming home, finally.

As for the exemption. Whilst he was in Dubai, an email advised it was declined.

Here are the things we learned:

  • Register with DfAT.
  • Don’t go via the US if you have been in the UK in the past 14 days.
  • Book a last-minute ticket within the 48 hours the Government gives airlines the final numbers. And have a PRC test ready.
  • Buy directly from the airline. All airlines offer no fee refunds and booking changes.
  • Check the country you are transiting through. This isn’t easy. Smart Traveller doesn’t give information for every country. Check Embassy sites for information.
  • Give someone close to you authority to act on your booking. Especially if they are in Australia.
  • Last, consider applying for exemption from Hotel Quarantine.
  • If you’ve lost hope, see a professional. This is an unprecedented time. Chronic stress has a detrimental effect on your brain.

We were fortunate. Many Australian families and vulnerable people continue to be homeless. Airports their refugee camps. We support the effort of the Australian Government to keep Australians safe from this invisible enemy. We support quarantine of people newly arrived in Australia but in the past eight months more is known about COVID than in March when this scheme began. Changes need to be made to ensure “No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his own country.” As stated in The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Scott Morrison said on the 18th of September he would bring home 26,000 stranded Australians. Today he said he had achieved that and more. However, out of the 35,000 returned Australians only 14,000 were from the DFAT list. With only an ‘at best’ prediction of 2845 more DFAT registered stranded Australians to return by Christmas it’s clear Scott Morrison’s promise won’t be met unless something changes drastically.

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