Explainer: When can Australians stranded overseas return home?

Many thousands of Australians are trying to land a spot on rare flights back to Australia. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos
Many thousands of Australians are trying to land a spot on rare flights back to Australia. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

While many in Australia are yearning for a time when they can travel abroad, thousands of citizens stuck overseas are simply trying to get back home.

More than six months since the coronavirus was declared a pandemic, there's still an estimated 30,000 Australians that have been stranded in other countries.

But in terms of getting home, it's not just as simple as booking a flight, heading to the airport and touching down in Australia.

Why can't Australians get home?

At the beginning of the pandemic, the federal government urged Australians who were overseas to come home as soon as possible, in the event international travel became more difficult.

While many had raced home to beat closing borders, there were thousands who were not able to get on a flight.

At the moment, there are more than 35,000 Australian citizens who have registered with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade that they are overseas.

Of those, more than 26,000 have expressed a wish to return, with 3500 stating they are in a vulnerable position.

International flights are still landing in Australian airports, but at a drastically reduced rate.

This is partly due to the Commonwealth restricting Australians from leaving the country on outbound flights unless they have an exemption from the government to do so.

With the government requiring all returning travellers to Australia to go into mandatory hotel quarantine for a 14-day period, numbers have been capped to reduce the strain on hotel quarantine being carried out by the states and territories.

Due to the cap, the flights that have been returning to Australia have often been almost empty, while the tickets for the few services to fly to Australia are several thousands of dollars and often have highly inflated prices.

While the early stages of the pandemic made it difficult for returning travellers to get home, the introduction of the caps has made it harder for Australians who are stuck abroad.

What is the cap on Australians returning home?

Currently, there is a limit of 4000 people that can return to Australia each week.

As Sydney is the largest airport in the country and a major international gateway to the country, it has been taking the largest number of passengers returning from overseas.

NSW can take up to 2450 passengers per week, while Perth has been allowed 525 returning travellers.

Both Brisbane and Adelaide have been capped at 500 passengers per week.

In Canberra and Darwin, those cities can take flights on a case-by-case basis, such as when Canberra received a repatriation flight from India.

Hobart does not receive any international flights.

While Melbourne has one of the country's largest international airports, flights from overseas have been diverted from the capital due to the large number of coronavirus cases detected in the state.

With Victoria's second wave being started by failures in its hotel quarantine system, the Victorian government requested flights be diverted so passengers not go into hotel quarantine, with a review into the system under way. Since March 13, more than 385,000 Australians have returned home.

Why can't the cap be increased?

The federal government wants to increase the limit from 4000 per week to 6000, although state and territory leaders would need to agree to such a proposal.

Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack said he wanted NSW, Queensland and Western Australia to take an extra 500 returning travellers a week, and for South Australia to take on an additional 360.

We feel the best way the states can manage the quarantine is through the hotel situation with, of course, proper guards over that.

Michael McCormack

Mr McCormack said on Wednesday he hoped the ACT, the NT and Tasmania could take on the remaining people.

However, ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr said smaller jurisdictions would need assistance from the federal government to take returning travellers.

South Australian Premier Steven Marshall said the state government was looking to increase its cap from 500 to 800 people per week.

Other state and territory leaders have said any increase to the cap would put existing hotel quarantine facilities under some strain, and have suggested quarantine take place at facilities operated by the federal government.

Many Commonwealth quarantine facilities such as Christmas Island and Yongah Hill are almost near capacity, while others such as Howard Springs are being used by the Northern Territory government to quarantine people travelling into the territory from interstate.

Mr McCormack said nothing was off the table in terms of getting people back home to Australia.

"We feel the best way the states can manage the quarantine is through the hotel situation with, of course, proper guards over that," he said.

Are there other alternatives to get people home?

Federal Labor leader Anthony Albanese has suggested the government use its fleet of Royal Australian Air Force VIP jets to bring home Australians who are stuck overseas.

The Opposition Leader said the fleet of jets was sitting idle and there was nothing to stop the planes from being used.

"There are two large aircraft, but there are other smaller aircraft available as well," Mr Albanese told The Sydney Morning Herald.

"It is simply unacceptable that the Prime Minister continues to say that there's nothing he can do about it and he hopes to have these families home by Christmas.

"Well, I think those who are desperate to get home should be brought home in September."

This story When can Australians stranded overseas return home? first appeared on The Canberra Times.


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