Coronavirus

Hundreds of desperate Australians look to charter flight out of Cambodia

Peter Gillard, a 26-year-old pilot in Cambodia, is asking for help to get home. Source: Supplied

Thousands of Australians are stranded around the world, with opportunities to get home during the coronavirus pandemic becoming few and far between.

A group of more than 300 Australians in Cambodia have asked the Australian embassy for assistance to leave, as they face a military-enforced lockdown that watch groups warn could “obliterate human rights.”

Peter Gillard, a 26-year-old pilot, says others in a Facebook group called ‘Aussies attempting to Leave Cambodia’ include a family of nine - with a child with autism who needs more medication - and a family travelling with elderly parents.

It comes as Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he's "shocked and bewildered" at 16,000 Australians defying travel advice to travel overseas, saying they won't "find themselves high on the list" to return to the country.

"I know some people have gone against the advice of the Australian Government, but many of us haven't," Peter says.

"We're not all in that group that just irresponsibly went overseas, we've tried, we've really tried every option available... have some compassion for your fellow Australians, we're just looking for some help, that's all."

Cambodia looks set to enter a state of emergency next week, and Amnesty International's Regional Director Nicholas Bequelin has warned the proposed draft emergency laws will “permanently undercut the human rights of everyone in Cambodia.”

Cambodia
A tourist enters the quiet Phnom Penh International Airport, Cambodia.
AP

"Instead of targeting critics and enacting this draconian law, the Cambodian government should be focusing on protecting the right to health through the prevention and treatment of COVID-19," Mr Bequelin said.

The draft bill bans or restricts the "distribution of information that could scare the public, cause unrest, or that can negatively impact national security, or that could cause confusion in response to the national emergency.

At least 17 people have been arrested and accused of spreading false news about the coronavirus in Cambodia since January, according to Reuters.

In March, Cambodian government spokesman Phay Siphan said the arrests were in response to social media posts that "made people believe panic that affects national security" and said such measures had been taken elsewhere around the world.

The Australian Embassy in Cambodia has urged Australians to seek commercial means to get home, but the 'Aussies attempting to Leave Cambodia' group says the volatility of flight cancellations and the high prices means that option is no longer viable.

Peter Gillard says the family of nine have already lost $10,000 - yet to be refunded - in cancelled flights, and would have to spend $63,000 to get home by commercial means now.

“Flight options are usually multiple transits through Asian countries and two to three days of travel times with long layovers in countries that change their restrictions daily,” he says.

"All we're doing is just trying to get home, we're not asking for a free ride, we're just asking for any assistance possible, even just a guaranteed flight, so if we pay money we know it won't be lost and take eight weeks to be returned, or not returned at all."

Peter GIlard
Peter Gillard worked as a pilot in Indonesia before the pandemic hit.
Supplied

A spokesperson from The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAT) said the embassy was “working with airlines and Government authorities to help secure commercial flight options for Australians in Cambodia and other nearby countries to return to Australia.”

It’s understood DFAT considers sending out repatriation flights, operated through an Australian airline, when all other commercial options have been exhausted and where local authorities will permit the flight.

Peter himself has lost more than $2,000 on flights attempting to get home after attempts to fly via Malaysia and Hong Kong earlier in March were thwarted when those countries blocked foreigners from transiting through.

He’s now using his connections in aviation to attempt to organise a chartered flight to ferry people back home, but it comes with its own problems.

While it would be cheaper than the commercial options available - at a rough cost of $1,600 per person, Peter says - it could only go as far as Darwin, and would have to pass through a lot of red tape.

"We're looking into how many people are interested in that flight, it would be cheaper than commercial options and have less risk of getting cancelled, but we have met a lot of roadblocks," he says.

"We feel as though the Australian government is treating us as if we're irresponsible, as if we didn't follow their advice, and that we've ended up here and we're asking them to bail us out... We're not asking for a free ride, but we can't afford to pay costs on top of costs."

Shahed Sharify
Shahed Sharify in his hotel room after returning to Melbourne from Jordan.
Supplied

Hundreds of Australians are flying home every day from around the world, some with consular assistance and some without.

Shahed Sharify, 31, arrived in Melbourne this morning and was sent to the Pan Pacific hotel for his mandatory 14 days isolation.

He’d just spent a month in Jordan, in the Middle East, where he lived in his hotel room for fear of a military-enforced curfew outside.

"Once they say you can't leave the house and there are tanks on the street, and then people get arrested for going out to buy bottles of water, then there's this insane whiplash reversal where you're suddenly not on holiday, but you're in a military police state," he says.

"I don't know if I was more worried about having coronavirus or about having zero rights."

Shahed was almost a quarter of his way through an eight-month trip around the world when he reached Jordan on February 25. He travelled to the ancient rock-hewn city of Petra, and spent a night camping with Bedouins out in the famous Wadi Rum desert.

Shahed Sharify
Shahed Sharify in Wadi Rum, Jordan, during his trip.
Supplied

Then on 14 March, Jordan made a sudden announcement that it would close its airports for at least two weeks. Shahed immediately was forced to decide between an $8,000 flight home, or waiting it out. DFAT advised travellers to return home from Jordan the following day. 

"At that stage, we weren't even close to where we are now... $8,000 is a lot to spend on a decision that needs to be made in 30 seconds," he says.

"With the information I had I thought it was possible they would open the airports again, (Jordan) didn't have many infections... in hindsight I would've paid that amount, I ended up paying that much and possibly more."

He asked the Australian embassy in Jordan repeatedly if they would provide repatriation flights, and asked if they could arrange for him to hop onto other repatriation flights sent by Canada and Germany to retrieve their citizens, but was told this was not possible.

On one occasion he found out about a repatriation flight after the embassy closed for the day, and when he called the 24-hour Consular Emergency Assistance helpline he was told that it was "more of an information line."

Following embassy advice, he formally registered his interest to leave on March 25 and the staff leapt into action.

Five days later he was on a Qatar Airways flight to Doha with a wide variety of passengers, among them "about 15 Aussies", that was able to leave Jordan with special permission from the government. It cost him about $5,600.

"All of that was very smoothly done, once they decided they wanted to help... they were very effective in getting me home," he says.

"Now that I'm home, there's a massive layer of anxiety that's now peeled away. I'm not worried anymore, that sense of dread has been removed."

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) says it cannot comment on individual cases.

It has launched an Emergency Call Unit to bolster supply for the Consular Emergency Centre (CEC)'s hotline (1300 555 153 in Australia and +61 6261 3305 overseas). More than 30,000 calls have been answered since March 13.

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others and gatherings are limited to two people unless you are with your family or household.

If you believe you may have contracted the virus, call your doctor (don’t visit) or contact the national Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080. If you are struggling to breathe or experiencing a medical emergency, call 000.

SBS is committed to informing Australia’s diverse communities about the latest COVID-19 developments. News and information is available in 63 languages at sbs.com.au/coronavirus.

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