Opinion: Stop Blaming Australians For Being Stuck Overseas

There are currently thousands of Australians that are still stranded overseas and are desperately trying to get home.

Many of their stories have come out in the media over recent weeks. Perhaps the most extreme stories have come from Australians stuck in Peru, after the Peruvian government imposed a national lockdown at short notice. It was simply not possible for most Australians in Peru to leave in time – for a myriad of reasons. Some were in remote locations and didn’t receive the news in time. Others were unable to travel to Lima’s international airport at such short notice. And even some people that did make it to the airport were unable to leave amid the chaotic scenes as all of the departing flights were full.

But that hasn’t stopped some armchair critics from blaming the Australians stuck overseas for getting themselves into this predicament. For example, here are just a few of the many Facebook comments on this Sydney Morning Herald article about an Australian couple that have been in South America since last July and are now stuck there…

Get a life, the Government has a lot of other things to worry about.

Taxpayer money should not be spent to evacuate people who are stuck in South America by their own choices, they assessed their own risks, made a decision to holiday in the midst of a viral outbreak, and that the best option is for them to stay put and ride out the pandemic.

They had plenty of time to change their plans and come home

How is this even a story? They knew the risks and they simply have to pay their way home.

I am personally very disappointed to see so many comments such as these on social media, and elsewhere. Yes, some Australians chose to travel overseas after the coronavirus became a known event. And yes, some people have ignored advice and taken unnecessary risks. But the vast majority of Australians that are now returning to Australia and heading into quarantine – or are still overseas and trying to get home – got caught up in this situation suddenly and through no fault of their own.

The last few weeks may feel like an eternity. So it’s easy to forget that the Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade (DFAT) only started advising Australians to reconsider their need to travel overseas since 13 March 2020. That’s just over two weeks ago. The later announcement that Australians overseas should return home as soon as possible only came on 17 March, and DFAT updated its travel advice for all countries to “do not travel” on 18 March.

By this time, some countries had already started imposing lockdowns and travel restrictions – often with little or no warning – and airlines had already begun cancelling flights and grounding planes. Just a week later, the UAE, Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan – home to major transit hubs – were already closed to transiting passengers. Now, Qatar Airways remains one of the only major international airlines still flying a near-full schedule.

In most cases, there was enough warning for tourists to get home. Indeed, tens of thousands of Australians have already returned over recent weeks. But for travellers in some parts of the world, there was not enough time.

You also need to consider that some people had planned to stay overseas longer term, and have houses, belongings or even jobs in another country. For those people, it may not be possible just to get on a plane tomorrow and return to Australia for an unknown amount of time.

With the benefit of hindsight, of course those stuck overseas would have come home sooner – or not left the country in the first place.

Everything happened extremely quickly, and in the days before it became too difficult to get home, most people did not have enough information to make an informed decision. I know this because I was overseas myself when the situation began to spiral out of control. For some travellers, vital information arrived too late. And the information that was available was often inconsistent. The fact that some Australian embassies are now closed due to local government restrictions is not helpful.

Many of those overseas had left Australia well before COVID-19 was a known event. Some had been overseas already for months or even years. To make things more difficult, most travel insurance policies became void as soon as the Australian government updated its travel warning for the entire world “do not travel” – something it did with no warning.

Most of those stranded overseas were insured and are not expecting the government to have to “bail them out”. They are trying to get out on commercial flights at their own expense. Many had in fact already booked flights that were cancelled at the last minute by their airline, or due to unexpected government restrictions.

Unfortunately, in some places such as Peru, Argentina or Russia, it’s simply not possible to book a commercial flight to anywhere right now because all international flights are banned. And not everyone has the means to charter a private jet.

A charter flight from Peru to Australia was recently organised by Chimu Adventures in conjunction with DFAT. This flight arrived in Sydney on Tuesday morning. Tickets were not cheap, costing between $5,162 and $10,872 per passenger. But even many Australians that could afford a ticket were unable to buy one because the flight was fully booked.

I can tell you from my own experience that the fear of not knowing whether you’ll get home is very real. Most of the Australians stranded overseas are doing everything they can to try to get home, but they are faced with hurdles that nobody could have predicted. For them, it’s anything but a holiday.

It’s very easy to criticise others from the comfort of your armchair without knowing their circumstances. But instead of blaming those Australians that are now stuck in awful situations around the world, try putting yourself in their shoes and showing some empathy.

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Matt Graham
The editor of Australian Frequent Flyer, Matt's passion for travel has taken him to over 60 countries… with the help of frequent flyer points, of course!
Matt's favourite destinations (so far) are Germany, Brazil, New Zealand & Kazakhstan. His interests include economics, aviation & foreign languages, and he has a soft spot for good food and red wine.

You can contact Matt at [email protected]

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Anna

Yes, thanks Matt. I am disappointed again to read all the judgemental comments from people who seem to have quite narrow shallow thinking and you would think they’d know better. They see reports as upsetting to them, apparently unable to identify with people who are in dire circumstances. And these people are frequent flyers themselves.

Swedish Pete

Matt, you are spot on. My own plans went from “we’re still ok” to “its impossible” in the space of two days. We were lucky we hadn’t yet departed, but a week or two later and we too could have been trapped. Thanks for mentioning the unintended consequence of no travel insurance as a result of the DFAT changes. My first policy had no pandemic coverage but I still would have been covered if I had some other problem. But that ceased with the “reconsider your need” warning. I then looked at another policy that would still provide cover but… Read more »

Dee

People ignored the advice to come home, now they have to pay the price. No sympathy for those who decided they knew better, and weren’t going to be told what to do.

Much the same as the idiots who crowded onto Bondi Beach despite being told not to.

Nick I

I’m not an armchair commentator. I left Australia on 10 March for a three week trip to Spain of all places. I was obviously aware of what was going on and did a risk analysis before I left with the idea that I would reevaluate the situation as it developed. When Madrid went into lockdown, I started looking for options to return home, and I did, so two days later on 17 March at a cost of $2700. I have zero sympathy for these people stuck overseas. They had to know what was happening and they should have been more… Read more »

Baxterburger

Fair enough, travellers who go to such places after around 10 March should have been ‘sophisticated enough to read the signs and leave early. I’ve travelled south America extensively and to be forewarned is part of the plan. I do feel for those who fell into the disaster but there are many who should have got themselves out earlier. Much the same as those in Australia cancelled their travel plans in early march.

Dee

Indeed, I was overseas in February, and travel agents were cancelling holidays even back then, by mid February, many flights around the world were being cancelled already, and countries were closing their borders. Those travelling in March knew they were taking a huge risk.

Dee

I also had friends overseas when the travel advise level was lifted to “do not travel”. Some cancelled their holiday and came home immediately while they were able. Others decided to continue their trip, despite most tourist attractions being closed. Those that delayed (only 4 days) ended up not being able to get flights for days, lucky for them they did eventually get them, but the lesson was there. If they had delayed any longer, they would be like these in Peru, where everything is shut down, and they are stranded. Those that listened were safe, those that didn’t risked… Read more »

James

I knew well and truly by mid March that japan trip In April was a no go ,I was booked on.Planing or leaving for a trip to South America any time in February was not very smart at all . These countries can’t easily look after their own people let alone wealthy western tourists. DFAT advisories are the very last to consult. Ones gut feeling should have well and truly kicked in before that. Also remember that getting on a cruise liner any time after the Yokohama incident in japan was very silly indeed. DFAT employees have worked 24/7 i… Read more »

Brett McOrrie

We had planned to be in France on April 6, we cancelled on 2 March as it was already obvious by then things were going to get bad everywhere. Travel is at your own risk, insured or not. The problem is other countries such as Israel and Germany to name a few have successfully managed to get lots of their people out. So perhaps if our government does want to help they should find out how these countries managed to do it. I realise for example their must be lots of Indians in Australia wanting to return home, so if… Read more »

Andrew

Since the March 17/18 announcement saying NOT to go overseas there have been just over 16,000 Australian citizens fly out. Many thousands more ‘permanent residents’.

It would be good to know how many of these are among those demanding help.

Our daughter finished her university degree at the end of 2019 and had booked a month in Japan starting late January. Off her own back she decided to cut it short by nearly 2 weeks (would have been longer but trying to change to earlier flight took 4 days with online travel agent).

Tom

This is a time for togetherness. No point wasting energy typing an op-ed piece criticising anyone. I’m disappointed at Aussies who feel the need to strand other Aussies in far-flung-places whether it’s their fault or not. Pull together people!

This might be where we’re heading. Decisions made at high levels without the time to consider the unintended consequences. Those decisions might effect thousands or millions of people. and lead to societal and systemic breakdowns which might last generations. Pray…

David

Good, at last a rational opinion.

Simon

Agree completely Tom! Its unprecedented and we need to work together to either beat this, or find a way to live with it.

Simon

Perhaps some of those stranded overseas were reading the Facebook comments (possibly by the same Aussies that are judgementally posting now), the ones that were saying “It’s just a flu”, or who were still wandering around like nothing had changed until they were physically banned from doing so. Although this is unprecedented, Australians in general have been behind on this situation from the start. We have lived overseas for going on 6 years now and made the decision to stay where we are in Hanoi, primarily because we feel safer than we felt we would in Australia. So far we… Read more »

Clive

Zero sympathy for those stranded and whinge for a bail out when the outbreak was public knowledge from at least December onwards. Travellers have displayed a clear lack of situational awareness or a complete disregard to take action early. It is unsurprising that air fares are expensive as in most cases rescue aircraft are flying to these remote far away places empty to pick up these people with no revenue to offset the costs of fuel, landing fees etc.

Brian O'Keefe

I’m with you on this Matt. We were in Austria on 14th March, when we were told that we had to be out of the country by the 16th of March. We rang Qantas to arrange a flight out. Twice at the 2 hour mark we were cut off. On the 3rd attempt after waiting 2 hours and 40 minutes we got through. Meanwhile my wife rang the Australian consulate and as it was a Saturday was answered in Canberra. The person there was unaware of any such order in Austria!. It was all over the Austrian media by this… Read more »

James

My shoes would not have been in Austria mid March ,Responsibility needed to be taken not to be there. At this time , It’s my friends at defat that need to bail out bad decision makers . Defat maybe does not have access to Austrian media, what they do have is to provide access to all Australian’s where ever they are in the world.

James

I think this strikes a chord to some sitting on their armchairs because they see this as ,who should be responsible ,government or self.. I am assuming we are all very knowledgeable FF, live and breathe travel. Most likely in this forum we more likely than not to want to be travelling at the present time. People may be very judgmental when frequent flyers should know to be frequent parkers at this time .and reserve the help for those that really need it.

Blaz

Who cares what these people think, or not think? They are ignorant of all the facts , and simply represent the vocal and opinionated people that overrepresent humanity on social media. They shoot first, and don’t bother asking questions. The media often buys into this though with their headline stories that barely digs into the detail, giving a distorted view.