abc.net.au- Frustration is growing among Australians stranded overseas who say they have been forced into a Hunger Games-style scramble for repatriation flights that is leaving vulnerable cases behind.
Tickets for two government-facilitated Qantas flights from London to Darwin were released last week, prompting a mad rush that overwhelmed the airline’s booking system.
Some of the 39,000 stranded Australians logged on to book, selected a seat and entered their details, only to be met with an error page.
Qantas confirmed the error page was the result of “a high volume of bookings at the same time with capacity being exhausted”.
While the Department of Foreign Affairs maintains it is prioritising the most needy, Australians listed as vulnerable have told 7.30 they have missed out on the latest flights.
“They may as well have just drawn us all out of a hat,” said 28-year-old Kate Monroe, who is stranded in the UK.
Ms Monroe has been living and working there for the past three years but urgently needs to return to country Victoria for family reasons.
She is one of the 5,000 Australians listed as vulnerable, but missed out on the latest repatriation flights.
“I’d been in tears thinking that I was going to be coming home,” Ms Monroe told 7.30.
“Once I got to the payment information, an error had occurred. That flight was just gone.”
seats should be allocated based on need
Some Australians who secured seats conceded on social media they were probably not as vulnerable as others.
“People have got these flights and they may not necessarily be as vulnerable as the rest of us, so it was heartbreaking,” Ms Monroe said.
Another Australian deemed vulnerable, 21-year-old Simone Platovnjak in London, also failed to get a repatriation seat after selecting a flight.
“I got to checkout and the page glitched and I went to refresh it and I lost it,” she said.
Qantas said it would release more repatriation flights soon.
Stranded Australians are demanding a fairer and more organised system which allocates seats based on need and are also calling for greater case management from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT).
“Seeing other people that are just, ‘Yeah, I want to go home, I’m just fed up with it here’, just really doesn’t sit right,” Ms Platovnjak said.
“The DFAT flights should really be for the vulnerable people.”
‘I’ve never had that type of money in my life’
For some, the thousands of dollars required for airfares and then quarantine fees in Australia mean travelling home is unaffordable.
Economy class tickets in the latest round of Qantas repatriation flights are set at $2,151 from London, while business class fares are more than $8,600.
Another Australian stranded in the UK listed as vulnerable, 20-year-old Kate Mills, missed out on an economy class seat and could not afford the business fare that was available.
“I’ve never had that type of money in my life,” she told 7.30.
“I’m now couch surfing and paying two pence for noodles every day.”
Ms Mills’s mother in Brisbane, Kiran Kishore, said DFAT and Qantas should do more to ensure seats on flights went to the most needy.
“I don’t see how they’re prioritising a vulnerable person, because she’s listed as a vulnerable and she’s done everything they’ve asked her to do,” she said.
“I try not to think about how far away she is and not think about the dangers she could possibly be in because if you do you fall to pieces.”
Qantas said it continued to charge different rates — economy, premium economy and business — to recover the cost of flights.
Nearly 40,000 Aussies still stranded
Since the pandemic began, the national carrier has continued to cooperate with DFAT to pluck Australian citizens and residents from major cities around the world, but the huge volume of Australians is proving to be intractable.
The number of Australians who have registered with DFAT has risen slightly from 37,000 to 39,000 as more people have added their names and circumstances have changed.
“There shouldn’t be an expectation that it is going to move to zero any time soon,” Acting Foreign Minister Simon Birmingham told 7.30.
“There will continue to be pressures, I expect, right through the management of the pandemic.”
Questions have been raised about whether the tough border restrictions Australia is imposing on overseas arrivals adhere to international human rights laws.
Prominent human rights barrister, Geoffrey Robertson QC, says Australians overseas have the right to return under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
No-one should be arbitrarily deprived of their right to enter their own country,” Mr Robertson told 7.30.
“Because Australia is denying thousands of people their right to enter, then I would have thought a successful application could be filed tomorrow at the Human Rights Commission in Geneva and that the decision eventually would go against Australia and that maybe we have to pay compensation.”
Senator Birmingham said Australia’s overseas arrival caps were justified and DFAT has been allocating repatriation seats to the most desperate of cases before they were released more widely.
“Seats are offered on a case-by-case basis initially to some of those in the most extreme or most difficult circumstances who are receiving financial hardship payments,” he said.
The Government has so far spent $17 million on hardship payments that include grants or personal loans.
With anger growing about the decision to allow 1,200 Australian Open visitors into Melbourne, Senator Birmingham said he expected Victoria to use the extra quarantine capacity created to help stranded Australians.
“The Victorian Government made its decisions around creating additional quarantine places there and we trust that at the end of the Australian Open quarantine period that will see more places available for returning Australians in Victoria,” he said.
National Cabinet is again expected to review the limit on international arrivals — currently about 4,200 per week nationally — in mid-February.