Immigration

Thousands of backpackers are stranded in Australia with no work and no flights to get home

Ben Mahmoud and Claudia Dawe are calling for the UK government to send rescue flights. Source: Supplied

Many thousands of backpackers and temporary workers are stuck in Australia, without access to work or Centrelink and with international flights halting, no way to get home.

For British citizens Ben Mahmoud and his girlfriend Claudia Dawe, coming to Australia on a working holiday was supposed to be the trip of a lifetime.

Now stranded in Brisbane with almost no money, no work and no way to get home, it has turned into a nightmare.

“We are sort of hoping the UK government will send rescue flights over the next week or two because if not, I genuinely don’t know what we are going to do. It’s quite scary,” Mr Mahmoud, 26, told SBS News.

The couple, who are from South Yorkshire, are just two of thousands of foreign backpackers and temporary workers stuck in Australia due to the impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak on jobs and travel.  

They arrived in Australia about two-and-a-half months ago and travelled the east coast before finding jobs in Brisbane with the intention of settling down to work for a few months.

But Mr Mahmoud’s job as a gym manager was cancelled before it even began.

“We had low funds anyway and were sort of relying on the job that I got to be able to carry on living in Australia," he said. 

"When we lost that, we had our flight money saved to the side, we thought 'well we really are screwed now', so we booked our flights home.” 

“Now the flights have been cancelled, we don’t have the flight money. We have a maximum of a few hundred dollars between us, we can’t seem to get help off anybody.”

No help available 

Mr Mahmoud said they have looked for work stacking supermarket shelves but due to the saturation of the job market they are yet to find anything and their funds are running dangerously low.

The couple has resorted to begging friends and family back home to provide financial support, but say given the situation the UK is in, and with Mr Mahmoud’s parents also being out of work, it hasn’t been easy.

They say the UK High Commission to Australia is yet to provide them with any support of information.

Two of the Swedes in Maja's group have been able to fly home, the rest are stranded in Australia.
Two of the Swedes in Maja's group have been able to fly home, the rest are stranded in Australia.
Supplied

For Maja Stahle and her group of five friends, all Swedish nationals, the situation has been similar, but as they are in Australia on tourist visas, they have no rights to work.

“We have been calling [the embassy] non-stop every day … I don’t have a working holiday, just a tourist visa, so I’ve been trying to change it, but you can’t even call them, it’s really hard,” she said from Brisbane, where the group are staying.

Two of her friends have been able to spend around $3,500 on flights home to Sweden via Thailand, which has been requiring all transit passengers to have evidence of a recent negative test for COVID-19.

It is unclear whether the directive issued by the Thai government still stands, as the Swedish Embassy website on Wednesday stated travellers need only obtain a "fit to fly" certificate. 

Ms Stahle said the rest of the group also got tested so they could board flights to Thailand, but those flights have since been cancelled.

“We spent a lot of money on the flights back home, so we don’t have a lot of money. That’s our biggest concern, we don’t have money to get back home or to live here,” she said.

Visas set to expire

There is also uncertainty about what will happen to the travellers once their visas expire.

SBS News sent the Department of Home Affairs a series of questions about whether those on temporary visas would have them automatically extended or face detention and deportation for overstaying their visas.

Home Affairs did not directly respond to the questions but sent SBS News a transcript of a recent media briefing by Acting Minister for Immigration and Citizenship Alan Tudge. 

“I would say to those people that if they cannot exit Australia or want to stay in Australia, then please let the Department of Immigration know as quickly as possible and inform them of your circumstance. We will be able to deal with those individual cases,” Mr Tudge said in the briefing.

He added that with no new temporary visa holders entering the country and with the necessity of having these workers for essential services and businesses, “flexibility” would be provided in regards to visa circumstances.

“For those people who have visas expiring very soon, yes, call the Immigration Department or certainly let them know. You will be able to apply for a further visa and we certainly are taking into account the coronavirus circumstances,” he said.

Australians must stay at least 1.5 metres away from other people. Indoors, there must be a density of no more than one person per four square metres of floor space.

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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