Australians are said to hold the 9th most powerful passport in the world, yet according to an estimate from the Board of Airline Representatives of Australia over 100,000 Australians are currently stranded overseas, trying to return home.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, arrival caps, soaring airfares and mandatory hotel quarantine costing over £1,500 a person has made the prospect of returning home near impossible.
Meanwhile, more than 30,000 British citizens have returned to the UK on 142 Government charter flights from almost 30 different countries since the outbreak of coronavirus. While individual circumstances may differ, one pattern is resoundingly common – Australians abroad (or “antipodeans”) have been abandoned by their government throughout the pandemic. Most recently, this is due to new limitations which have capped the number of citizens allowed to fly home to just 4,000 a week.
In pre-pandemic days, the Australian accent frequently echoed throughout the concrete jungle that is London. The Australian High Commission is located just across the road from the Strand Campus. However, many are now facing job loss, visa expiry and a consequent inability to access government health or welfare benefits. Therefore, the thousands seeking to return home are Australians who left the country well before the pandemic, not reckless holiday makers. This reality stands in stark contrast to the public statements of many Australia politicians including Trade Minister Simon Birmingham, who has ignored the complexities associated with the decision to go home by declaring that, “If you wanted to come back you should have already come back”.
Alex Barbier, a third year International Relations student at King’s, informed Roar that while the government did urge citizens to return in March, he believed it was a message aimed at short term travellers, not full-time students studying at institutions like Kings. Those who have a degree to study, a year long housing contract, internships and jobs were advised to stay where they were. The path Covid-19 has taken has been completely unpredictable and six months on, their lives today are fundamentally different to that in March.
Australians abroad are still awaiting a solution. At the beginning of September, the Australian government announced a one-off loan of £1094 for individuals stranded abroad to book an economy-class ticket home, reflecting how out of touch the Australian government was. Airlines have been prioritising extortionately priced business class tickets due to the financial unviability of flying just 20 passengers.
This prioritisation of business class tickets and higher-paying customers as a means of remaining profitable is no secret. The Chief Executive of Qatar airways (one of the few commercial airlines flying to Australia), Al Baker, declared that, “…because we have such a limited number of passengers that we can carry, we have no other alternative but to maximise the yield that we get”.
The frustrations of thousands are encapsulated in 3rd year PPL student Saras Sawhney’s sentiments, “Australia’s success in keeping rates of domestic transmission low is commendable. But we cannot forget that a major component of this success is one of the world’s strictest border policies. Preventing unnecessary travel is defensible but enforcing measures which make it de facto impossible for Australian citizens in desperate circumstances to return home is not. Worse still is what can only be called wilful ignorance, in Mr Birmingham’s case, of the lived experience of these 100,000+ Australians. More can be done and must be done”.