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Comment: When your government stops you from returning home

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (R) and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg. Image credit: Chu Chen/PA Images

Comment: When your government stops you from returning home

“There have been many opportunities for people to return,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said, “if they’re choosing to do so now, they’ve obviously delayed that decision for a period.”

And with that, it was announced that international arrivals to Australia would be slashed in half to ease pressure on the country’s coronavirus hotel quarantine system. Those lucky enough to return may have to fork out $3000 (£1600) to quarantine in a hotel, in some states.

But what if it’s not that simple, Scott?

It’s estimated one million Australians live overseas. A rite of passage for decades, some Aussies move abroad for a gap year and others permanently.

Many of my friends and family have done it, including myself, moving long before the global pandemic. Some have mortgages, jobs and family tying them to their adopted country. Others were fortunate enough to secure (expensive) repatriation flights home when the virus reared its ugly head.

I considered whether I should look at moving back when the virus took hold in March, but I have a good job, an apartment, friends and still time left on my visa. Besides, the prospect of immediately packing up my life and getting inside the confines of a plane for 24 hours during the height of coronavirus did not sound safe or pleasant.

Flights were cancelled all over the place – the only way for Aussies spread out over Europe was to head to London to try and secure a seat on one of the few planes heading home.

I will return when it is safer to do so, I reasoned. But I didn’t expect that the government would make it even harder to get home.

The situation has left many expats anxious about when they will ever be able to go home.

“It just makes me so enraged that we're being used as political pawns.”

A friend who has been teaching in Spain for two and a half years told me his flight had been booked almost 12 months ago. He is due to leave from Madrid at the end of July, via Doha, arriving in Melbourne.

Earlier this year he had expected to quarantine in a hotel there, before flying again to his family home on the Gold Coast in Queensland. But now, Melbourne has become the epicentre of the virus.

The whole city is under a second lockdown, community transmission has led to hundreds of cases recorded per day. Much of the transmission stemmed from dodgy procedures inside quarantine hotels – so the thought of him having to spend two weeks quarantining there is understandably frightening.

With his flight only days away, my friend tells me he’s heard nothing from neither the airline nor the government and is reaching out to the Australian embassy in Spain to find out more.

“I'm anxious but optimistic that it will miraculously still go ahead. But the anxiety is amplified because of the situation back in Australia,” he said this week. “And I’ve heard stories of them cancelling flights 24 hours before the flight as well.

“The problem with my flight was that I couldn't change it even if I wanted to. I would have had to forfeit the one I had already booked in order to try and get a repatriation one.

“And because I had built such a strong foundation of friends and people I consider family in Alcoy, there was no way I could just up and leave at the drop of a hat anyway.”

He added: “It just makes me so enraged that we're being used as political pawns.”

I plan to move back home in a few months’ time. I’m anxious about what the situation will be, given my plan is to move back to Melbourne.

But, as this year has showed all of us, everything can change in the blink of an eye. There seems no point in even booking my flights home yet – not to mention the hassle of a potential cancellation and the extortionate costs. And so, the waiting game continues.

Update: my friend's flight home was cancelled just hours after this was published. The embassy told him they're not handling any travel issues. He is now stranded in Spain. “Basically Australia has given up on helping people even get back. At least that's what it feels like,” he told me on Friday morning.

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