Why are more than 25,000 Australians still stranded overseas, six months into the pandemic?

How arrival caps and soaring airfares have left tens of thousands desperate to return

A Qantas flight carrying Australians who were stranded in India lands at Canberra airport




A Qantas flight carrying Australians who were stranded in India lands at Canberra airport. More than 25,000 citizens are trying to fly home.
Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

When international borders shut at the beginning of the pandemic in March, tens of thousands of Australians living and travelling overseas upended their plans and began to return home, as the government told them to.

Australia’s first wave of Covid-19 was largely attributed to the hordes of international arrivals, who were testing positive during their stays in mandatory hotel quarantine.

Six months after Scott Morrison called on citizens to return home, more than 25,000 Australians who want to fly home are still stuck in countries around the world.

So, why can’t Australians overseas get home?

Are planes still flying into Australia?

Yes. After serious halts to flight movements earlier in the pandemic, planes carrying both passengers and cargo have resumed flying into Australian cities.

Far fewer flights and airlines are coming in, in large part due to Australia’s strict ban on citizens exiting the country and restrictions on non-citizens arriving for non-essential purposes, such as tourism.

But all planes landing at Australian airports are well under capacity, with some flights carrying fewer than 30 passengers.

Why can’t the empty seats be used?

Australia’s international passenger arrival caps strictly limit how many people can enter the country.

Designed to ease pressure on the state- and territory-run hotel quarantine systems, the arrival caps were agreed to and implemented by the national cabinet in July, and tightened later that month.

State and territory leaders request their limits, based on what they think their quarantine system can take, and the limits are enforced by the commonwealth, which controls borders.

How many people can enter Australia?

The cap is set at about 4,000 a week. Sydney airport takes the most international passengers, with 350 a day. Perth takes about 525 a week, while Brisbane and Adelaide each take 500 a week.

Canberra and Darwin can negotiate passenger limits on a flight-by-flight basis, while Melbourne is accepting no international passengers as Victoria focuses on containing its second wave of Covid-19.

What does that mean for Australians stranded overseas?

The caps mean that flights landing in Australia are, on average, limited to between 50 and 70 passengers.

Since the introduction of the caps, the cost of flights into Australia has soared, as airlines look to cover the expense of running the service.

But even as Australians desperate to return home pay tens of thousands of dollars for one-way flights, their tickets are being repeatedly cancelled, as airlines have to trim their daily passenger lists each day to meet their limit.

As many Australians living overseas had booked their flights home before the caps were introduced, while others have since left the country for short trips (having secured exemptions from the exit ban on compassionate grounds), the caps are creating a bottleneck of Australians trying to fly back.

Frustrated airlines have acknowledged they are cancelling economy and, increasingly, business class tickets so they can prioritise higher-paying customers to remain profitable. Some planes are flying with as few as four economy passengers.

Some stranded Australians who have contacted the Guardian said their airline had told them their tickets could not be honoured until 2021.

How many Australians are stuck overseas? And didn’t they all ignore the government’s advice to come home months ago?

More than 25,000 Australians have registered with the government as wishing to return, but many have told the Guardian they had not been told about the registration website and were not counted in the government’s figures.

The organisation representing airlines that fly into Australia estimates that 100,000 Australians have either had their flights home cancelled or will have them cancelled before the end of the year, as a result of the cap. This estimate is based on ticketing data provided by the airlines.

Many of the stranded Australians were living overseas at the beginning of the pandemic, and point to government advice that said they should stay put if they had a secure job and accommodation. As economies around the world have deteriorated, many have since lost their jobs and now want to return.

Others have told Guardian Australia that, after hearing the government’s advice to return home in March, they began selling their homes and ending leases but, by the time they had settled their affairs, their tickets had been cancelled.

There are also Australians who have left the country with valid exemptions, often on compassionate grounds to visit sick relatives, and have been stranded by the caps. While many booked brief visits overseas, they have found their return tickets cancelled without being rescheduled.

Who can fix this?

It depends who you ask.

The federal government has so far maintained that the caps are a matter for premiers and chief ministers, and it reviews the caps at the fortnightly national cabinet meetings. On Sunday the home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, said he “would be happy to double the number of people tomorrow” but it was ultimately a decision for state leaders.

The Coalition has ignored Labor’s calls to set up federal quarantine facilities – similar to those used to repatriate Australians from Wuhan early in the pandemic – so it can quarantine larger cohorts of incoming Australians without having to rely on state leaders to increase their caps.

No state leaders have so far announced any increase to the caps since they were introduced.

How long will the caps last?

The caps last until 24 October but national cabinet could extend them, or reduce or remove them, at each fortnightly review.

What can Australians who are stuck overseas do?

They can register their wish to return home at this government website.

The federal government has introduced a loan initiative to help Australians pay for their living costs as they wait for flights home, and to help fund a more expensive ticket home. But the loans have specific eligibility requirements and the government is advising stranded Australians to rely on their friends, families and local community organisations for financial assistance. Consular staff have also been advising stranded Australians to start crowdfunding campaigns.