Episode 07: The plight of stranded Australians

Episode 07: The plight of stranded Australians

Isabelle Roughol
Isabelle Roughol

Australians abroad are stranded: 23,000 have registered their desire to come home urgently, but they can't. Ostensibly to reduce the spread of covid-19 and the burden on the country's quarantine system, the federal government has instituted flight caps that reduce international arrivals to a trickle. Only 4,000 people may enter the country every week, less than two hours' worth of inbound international traffic in the "before world."  Getting one of those golden tickets is an expensive and harrowing lottery for Australians left abroad by circumstances beyond their control. Australia is now a fortress, and it’s not leaving a side door open for its own.

Four stranded Australians speak about their fight to get home, the backlash from fellow Aussies and what it is doing to the fabric of the nation.

With Tonya Stevens, Sara Webber, Trevor Bowdidge and Polyn Helwend

Music by Dyalla.


Transcripts are published for your convenience, but they are automated and not always cleaned up. Please excuses typos and occasional nonsense, and always check the audio before quoting.

[00:26:33]  Trev Bowdidge: [00:26:34] My name's Trevor Bowdidge. I'm a British citizen born in London brought up in London and moved out to Australia around about 22 years ago.

[00:26:45]   About a year or so ago my father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I had a call in June towards the end of June, I was working in Sydney at the time as per normal, and um had a call that he'd been admitted to hospital and wasn't expected to last very long.

[00:27:00]Australia had put a complete ban on all international travel. If you want to leave Australia you have to specifically apply for it through the department of foreign affairs.

[00:27:12]  The first application that we put through was actually rejected by the Australian government after a day or so because they said that we didn't have sufficient evidence to show that my cause was worthy enough. So I had to resort to getting my sister who was pretty much standing up on my father's death bed to get her to urgently take some photographs of um my father's medical records and doctor's letters, so that we could rush that in with the application on the second time to actually try and get clearance to leave the country. It was only then once we'd actually put that second application through that within a couple of days they actually got back to us and said that we were okay to travel. And even so, at Sydney airport when I left, it was very very exhaustive checks actually getting through security with the paperwork involved, before they'd actually let you anywhere near the checking counter

[00:28:09] as it turned out by the time that that had granted and by the time we booked the flight it was already too late and he'd already passed away. But um I came back for the funeral. I knew it would be hard traveling in COVID situation. I knew it would be hard traveling overseas and I knew it would be risky getting back to Australia afterwards, but I didn't really see that there was any other choice. Um

[00:28:36]the first bump I received an email from them saying that there had been a flight change. It was upsetting but at the same time we could almost reason why because in the previous week I think it was, um Morrison had announced that they'd be limiting in the amount of people that could travel into Sydney.

[00:28:57] I can see why they might have done it so we left it at that and I got used to the new um departure date. But I didn't for one moment think that um it would be delayed again. And it was only after that point that things really did start to snowball.

[00:29:12]the airlines have been blaming the Australian government, the Australian government is blaming the airlines, and people not myself that are stuck in the middle are uh kind of blaming both. Um

[00:29:22]we started seeing the reports coming out of what's been referred to as price gouging where people's economy seats were being canceled at the expense of stupid amounts of money for business class fares. So  last week and the week before I think fairs um to Sydney, if you can actually get them, were upwards of around about 6,000 pounds I think it was. So that's around about $12,000 for a single flight into Sydney. Um and some people were willing to pay those fares but for every person that was willing to pay those fares, it also meant that an economy cars passenger would also get bumped off of their flight for the airline to be able to do that.

[00:30:02]once the uh August the 15th booking was then canceled again,  um  the earliest they could fly me on an economy seat was September the 25th,.  Which was roundabout six weeks later. I was absolutely floored by that news. I'd already hung on another two weeks, my family were desperate to see me, I need to get back to my job, my work,  there's so many things. I didn't know how I was going to tell my wife that it was going to be another six weeks. I didn't know how I was going to cope mentally with it being another six weeks.

[00:30:31]unfortunately it does turn into a class and a money thing.  If you have the money to pay you could have got home.

[00:30:37] I can't get back to work and that really pains me.  I can only assume that my annual leave just keeps on getting eaten up and eaten up until there's no more left. That's all I can offer is my annual leave and then after my annual leave I suppose it be into my long service leave... but yeah for the moment they've been very good about it and they're still paying me but they can't go on forever because that's not fair to them either.

[00:31:05] It's a very very strange feeling to be putting in your life on hold on the other side of the world.  I'd do anything to just be sitting in my house with my family with my kids going to work feeding the dog...  you never realize how precious everyday things are until you don't have them around you.  everyone's lives are built up of the people and the events that happen around them on a day to day basis. And when all that is taken away, it just leaves a massive void in your life. It is very hard mentally to cope with every day,. It really is And I just hope people can can start seeing that from our point of view and to try and help out to  try and get us back where we belong.

Polyn Helwend

[00:31:52]Polyn Bungalay-Helwend: [00:31:52] My name's Polyn.  we relocated here to Spain Two years ago because my then 10 year old son had a dream to play football, which is soccer in Australia, um in Spain.

[00:32:05]my mum came in March because Our son, they were in the quarterfinals um so we thought that for his grandmother who's always supported him With his soccer for her to come here to Spain and to watch him play the quarterfinals Um

[00:32:26]my mom arrived with um some travel companions because she can't have all on her own especially for long distances. so she arrived from the 6th of March um from Australia via Bali um .

[00:32:38] So back in early March um -- clear transparency here -- we were as blasé as everybody else. You know "It's just another flu" You know um  but we sort of started to realize that things  were being different within the first few days of her being here.

[00:32:52]the Spanish government called uh a state of alarm.  We all scrambled, everybody went home um waiting to see what was going to happen.  our only option was for my mum to travel by herself from here to Madrid by train, catch a flight from Madrid to London, and hopefully get that flight from London  um to Perth, which At the age of 78 and with mobility issues this wasn't a practical option for us. Uh

[00:33:21]spain went out of lockdown on the 21st of June. we waited until the commercial flights started um    we needed to find someone to accompany mum Back to Australia Um and  to explain to her that when she reached a sway and she wasn't going to go straight home. In her mind she was leaving Spain and going straight back home to her house Um not realizing that you know she would have to double quarantine.

[00:33:51]she would have had to quarantine in the first state that she arrived in and with the state borders in Australia closed, it would mean that going into the Northern territory you would have to quarantine again. Because home for mum is in Darwin. She's already done quarantine here in Spain for almost 15 weeks, she would then have to go back to Australia  and quarantine again for a further 28 days.

[00:34:25] So we booked our tickets in early June for the 4th of August.  We received the email probably 10 days beforehand To say that um  she'd been bumped up the 4th of August  you know and our options were um to either cancel the flight um straight away or basically you know reschedule it to another time or in the words of the customer service officer you can upgrade to business class but we still can't guarantee you a seat.

[00:34:56]So we thought we could chance i t ; we'll wait til  the 19th of August. Um Now with the 19th of August flight we received no emails. Um The only way my husband found out about it was he read a post  on Facebook. Rang up Qatar And again the same thing you know However now you can only buy premium business . So it would have been 4,800 pounds, about 10,000 Australian dollars.

[00:35:24]Her travel is due on 21st of September out of London to Sydney . the dilemma we have at the moment is that as of the 19th of September my mum's Schengen visa will have expired  Uh and that means that once her and I leave Valencia , he can't return back here home.

[00:35:48] at her age she shouldn't be kept out because she can't understand she's being kept out of her own country.  Mum's been in Australia since 1974.  Even though she's very proficient in English I think because of what's happened um  her capacity to communicate has been quite limited Uh and  especially her capacity communicate in English. So she's resorting back to Indonesian quite a lot which is her mother tongue.

[00:36:16]from the time she came here you know she was slightly she was happy she was keen and eager to now  you know she's lost a lot of weight  probably in the last month or so Um since the first time she was bumped . I think  the second time, that's when it emotionally and mentally got to her. Um

[00:36:37] we have a very big extended family back in Darwin Um  my mum married my dad in 1974 and he was part of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island community in Darwin. So mum You know enjoys a big part of  being in that community You know you know they have catch-ups for coffees you know  And you know when her friends message her and say Hey we were at coffee day and we miss you When are you coming home. You know she

[00:37:04] has a little fishing group you know So she has a pretty active life back there you know within her own community and being not a part of it I think  makes it even worse for her.

[00:37:19]what I really want to say this fan government is that there are a lot of vulnerable people out there now you know we are not all um you know travelers, we're not holiday makers, we're all not expats with huge deep pockets. You know

[00:37:33] some of us like my mom I just Simple people who have been caught up in a catastrophe a world catastrophe and they need to come home first you know prioritize The people bring those that are vulnerable Bring those people that need to be kept safe That that's that's the only message I have.

[00:37:53]  Isabelle Roughol: [00:38:01] The stories go on and on a daughter, hoping to return to Queensland, to help her mum through chemotherapy, a family too far away from their struggling small business in Victoria. Expats just praying nothing happens at home.

[00:38:14] There are several ways to situation could end. Some are considering a class action lawsuit. It could become a diplomatic incident as Canberra leaves other countries to support its vulnerable citizens on expired visas. Or the Australian people could apply pressure on the federal and state governments and remove to flight caps.

[00:38:32] I want to thank Tonya Stevens, Sarah Weber and her family, Polyn and Tina Helwend, and Trevor Bowdidge for sharing their story.

[00:38:41]  A special note to the memory of two great dads, Jim Stevens and George Bowdidge. Special thanks to Annette Young and many other Aussies.

[00:38:49]  Borderline is a One Lane Bridge production. If you liked today's episode, please do subscribe. You'll find us everywhere you listen to podcasts and on the gorgeous new website at borderlinepod.com. Don't forget to rate and review on Apple podcasts, it really helps others discover us. There's an Instagram,  at_borderlinepod, and you'll see me on LinkedIn a lot. I'm Isabelle Roughol. And there's a Patreon now. Do go and support the pod, it means a lot to me and to my landlord. I think that's all. I'll talk to you next week.



Isabelle Roughol

Journalist. Founder & host of Borderline. Former international editor of LinkedIn, foreign editor at Le Figaro, reporter at The Cambodia Daily. Global soul, messy accent.


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