'We’ve been abandoned': Stranded Australians are taking their fight to come home to the United Nations

The group says Australia's quarantine system and cap on repatriation flights has breached an international convention on the right to return home.

Stranded Australian citizens stand in a queue to board a flight back to their country in Kathmandu, Nepal, Wednesday, May 6, 2020.

Stranded Australian citizens stand in a queue to board a flight back to their country in Kathmandu, Nepal, Wednesday, May 6, 2020. Source: AP

When Prime Minister Scott Morrison advised Australians to come home last year, Jason and his wife were left with some difficult questions.

“Do I give up my job? Do I sell everything and make a massive loss? Do I leave the pets here?" the US-based Australians asked themselves.

Given that they were safe, and Jason had a job, they decided to stay.

“So, the decision was made to shelter in place," he told SBS News.

But Jason had no idea how long he would be separated from his home country.

It's been hard. Since the advisory in March 2020, a family member has fallen ill with cancer, and another family member is having a baby. On top of that, their property in Australia needs maintenance and they have elderly family they need to see.

"There’s no light at the end of the tunnel," he said.

Jason is one of a group of Australians to have made submissions to the United Nations arguing their home country has breached an international convention.

The complainants say Australia has breached an article of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which provides that “no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his own country”.

The initiative was started by a group called 'StrandedAussies.org’, which includes volunteers who have been impacted by the flight caps.

'We weren't sunning ourselves or living the high life'

A microbiologist, Jason has been based in the US state of New Jersey since 2016 and is one of hundreds of thousands of Australians living overseas for work.

“We weren’t abroad sunning ourselves or living the high life,” Jason said. “We were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

The submissions to the UN are being made by prominent human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson QC.

Mr Robertson has told the ABC that the reason the complainants have gone to the UN is that the right to return home cannot be argued in an Australian court.

“We are the only advanced democracy in the world that doesn’t have a bill of rights,” Mr Robertson said.

Lucy Morrell is not one of the complainants but she, her husband and their 12-year-old daughter have been struggling to find a way home from Japan for months.

She took a year to responsibly fold her Hokkaido-based skiing and cycling business in accordance with Japanese law so she had the option to revive it again post-pandemic.

Lucy Morrell is hoping to board a flight to Australia from Japan after two previous flights were cancelled.
Lucy Morrell is hoping to board a flight to Australia from Japan after two previous flights were cancelled. Source: Supplied

On Thursday the family was finally due to board a flight to Australia after two previous cancellations. The tickets and quarantine had cost them $22,000.

"I don’t begrudge the expense but I am disgraced that there is no system for repatriation", Ms Morrell told SBS News.

"This lack of repatriation system, it's leaving citizens offshore in harm's way".

‘We just want a fair go’

For Jason, he compares his situation to others as “a rose garden” but understands the mental health impact this has had on Australians stranded around the world.

He's been increasingly frustrated with Australia’s limited quarantine system, which he believes has limited the cap on repatriations.

Not being able to see his wife’s unwell family member has been taxing on their mental health.

“My wife is clinically depressed. When your wife is in that situation and you’re married for 23 years, you’d like to think you can fix things. Not being able to is killing me inside. That’s affecting my mental health as well.

"We've been abandoned ... we just want a fair go."

Adam is another Australian stranded in Vancouver, Canada.

He has found a flight home in May after having a booking cancelled in January, and similarly feels like the government has abandoned him.

“You feel like an outcast, when really you have a job overseas and family to come home to,” he said.

More than 36,000 Australians remain stranded overseas due to government-enforced travel caps and a total of 4,860 of these have been described as vulnerable, according to figures released to the Senate from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) last week.

However, StrandedAussies.org estimates the number is much higher.

The top five countries with Australians attempting to be repatriated are India, the United Kingdom, the United States, the Philippines and Thailand.

SBS News has contacted DFAT for comment. 

4 min read
Published 1 April 2021 at 7:50pm
By Tys Occhiuzzi