Abandoned overseas: The mental health toll of Australia's closed borders on its citizens
Some Australians stranded abroad during the COVID-19 pandemic are still struggling despite finally returning home after long delays, while thousands more remain stuck.
It’s a cool night in Adelaide when Naomi Nguyen wakes with a start.
Her heart pounding and jaw clenched from grinding her teeth, she gasps for air as her eyes struggle to adjust to the darkness of her hotel room. She’s in quarantine after finally returning from overseas.
“For some time I would wake up feeling like I was suffocating,” says the 24-year-old, who made it home last October after being stranded in Europe for almost seven months.
“I’d experience this kind of disorientation from living between so many places while I was stranded and I needed a few moments to figure out where I was.”
Ms Nguyen, an Australian citizen, endured 98 days of home confinement in Spain, where she was working as a teaching assistant, followed by several months sleeping on friends’ couches before she could finally board a flight home to Australia.
Australia closed its international borders in March 2020 to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
It triggered anxiety attacks and depression for Ms Nguyen, and even now, she says her symptoms are yet to fully subside.
“For the first few months that I was back, it would hit me randomly. I could be eating lunch with my friends and find myself bursting into tears.”
Studying the psychological impacts
Provisional psychologist Jamie Stewart was compelled to act after reading the “horrifying” experiences of Australians stranded around the world being posted in Facebook groups.
Mr Stewart joined the groups himself after becoming stuck in Scotland, where he had been employed as a youth worker, and only returned home to Melbourne last November after four cancelled flights.
“Returning home, I felt the need to better understand the plight of others stranded overseas,” he says.
He has since been studying the short and long-term psychological impacts on those impacted by the border closures and has so far surveyed 240 Australians.
“This is a significant group of people; tens of thousands of Australians who are going through something we’ve never really seen before,” he says.
“No other country has made it this difficult for its people to return. It’s a novel area to look at.”
The research project, which Mr Stewart is conducting as part of his master’s degree in clinical psychology at Deakin University, invites Australian citizens and other visa holders living overseas and seeking repatriation to participate.
Mr Stewart says many Australians he has already heard from are experiencing mild to severe symptoms of anxiety and depression as a result of being stranded.
They have also expressed frustration about how they are being perceived by the Australian public, he says, "as if they have somehow brought this upon themselves”.
Respondents are also reporting "prominent feelings of abandonment”, which Mr Stewart says points to the lack of clarity, information, and support they received from the Australian Government.
“Interestingly, we’re thinking there could be a link here,” he says.
“The uncertainty, lack of information, and constant state of flux – such as the ever-changing caps on returning Australians – make it much harder for individuals to feel in control of their situation, and in turn experience more symptoms of depression and anxiety.”
“[This suggests] that with more information and resources from the government, individuals might feel more capable of handling the situation.”
As well as giving a voice to those impacted, Mr Stewart says he hopes to use the research to explore the coping strategies some people use amid uncertainty, and potentially inform future policy-making.
“Essentially, we are hoping to shed a more academic light on a set of circumstances that has largely been neglected thus far.”
‘Image of Australia shattered’
Pieter Den Heten is the founder of Remove the Cap, a website that maps Australians stranded around the world. He was working as a UX designer in Germany before moving to the Netherlands, where he was stuck for several months, and says his mental health has deteriorated since he returned to Australia.
“In all honesty, it is worse now than it was when I was stranded overseas.”
“The most challenging part is that I can’t talk about my experience, not even with those who I considered close friends. Australians aren't very open to discussing feelings and hardship at the best of times, but this seems amplified by the current pandemic situation.
“I feel like most Australians think that stranded people brought their situation upon themselves, and have very little compassion. People just expect you to be happy and grateful that you’ve made it back.”
For Ms Ngyuen, the lack of support she received while stranded - and since she returned - “shattered” her image of Australia.
“I have worn being Australian like a badge of honour my whole life, but being stranded made me feel abandoned and forgotten,” she says.
“My close friends and family who watched me suffer overseas sympathise with stranded Aussies, but the feeling that a lot of people didn’t care about me or other stranded Australians ... is heartbreaking.”
“It makes it hard to comprehend how I will ever feel like I belong here again.”
- Naomi Nguyen
I have worn being Australian like a badge of honour my whole life, but being stranded made me feel abandoned and forgotten.
Joel Mackay is a campaigner for Amnesty International. He says there is “no doubt” the mental health effects on stranded Australians who have now returned home will be long-lasting.
"When governments breach human rights they risk having long-term effects on the people whose rights they should be protecting,” he says.
“We are talking about people who have gone broke, who have been made homeless, who haven't had access to healthcare and education, and who have been kept away from their families. People who were at the absolute capacity of what they could handle.”
“There is no doubt that stranded Australians are going to be impacted by the government's decision to leave them behind in the middle of a crisis.”
Hope for home quarantine
More than 678,000 Australians have returned from overseas since the government recommended people reconsider the need to travel abroad, according to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT).
But thousands have experienced lengthy delays due to flight cancellations caused by Australia's flight caps, with only about 3,000 people currently being allowed into the country each week.
Approximately 43,000 Australians are currently registered as wishing to return and vigils are planned in London and New York this weekend in support of Australians stranded overseas.
State and territory leaders are currently working together on seven-day home quarantine trials for fully vaccinated Australians as an alternative to mandatory 14-day hotel quarantine.
“The Australian Government recognises that a number of Australians overseas are experiencing stress and uncertainty as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, impacting their mental health,” a spokesperson for DFAT said.
“DFAT aims to provide consular assistance to Australian citizens whose welfare is at risk abroad. Each situation is unique and our assistance will depend on the circumstances and availability of consular resources.”
“DFAT provides extensive information and support to Australians overseas, including specific advice on taking care of their mental health and where to get support. We actively support Australians overseas, including through our existing relationship and arrangement with Lifeline, enabling our 24-hour Consular Emergency Centre to connect callers directly to Lifeline in urgent situations.”
For some though, the impact has already taken its toll.
Ms Nguyen's application for a Spanish visa was approved last month and she has now left Australia.
“The [Australian] government received the emails, they saw the news stories, they spoke to stranded Aussies. They knew how much we were hurting,” she says.
“Being stranded has broken families apart, it has brought Australians to their knees, it has crushed our fighting spirit and no one seems to care about this – or about us.”
Stephanie Capper is an Australian freelance journalist based in Spain.
Australians overseas can contact the nearest Australian Embassy, High Commission or Consulate or call the Department’s 24-hour Consular Emergency Centre (CEC) on +61 2 6261 3305.
Readers seeking crisis support can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14. More information and support with mental health is available at Beyond Blue.org.au and on 1300 22 4636. Embrace Multicultural Mental Health supports people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.