'We feel abandoned': Australians stranded abroad plead for help during COVID-19 lockdowns

Australians have been left frustrated and uncertain as tightening border controls leave them stranded in locked-down countries.

Darrell Cruse is just one of a number of Australians who are abroad and struggling to find a way back home amid tightening international borders.

Darrell Cruse is just one of a number of Australians stuck in Peru. Source: Supplied

As the global coronavirus pandemic continues to leave a trail of panic and confusion, governments across the world are tightening their borders, and in some cases, locking them down altogether.

For some travellers, bunkering down and waiting out an uncertain future is their best option, but for others, a mad dash home is the only thing on their mind.

‘Sitting here alone’

Australian Darrell Cruse is in the Peruvian city of Cusco where he has spent the past few days locked down in his accommodation and left to weigh up his next move.

“I left Australia on the 20th February, spent eight days in Rio, five in Buenos Aires, three or four in Bolivia,” he told SBS News.

Australian Darrell Cruse during happier times, posing in front of the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Source: Supplied

“Then I flew to Cusco, where it has all sort of gone pear-shaped.

“Being boxed up in this little room for the next 15, 20,30, 40, 50 days….who knows. It's not going to be good."

Mr Cruse, who works in construction at Barrow Island just off the coast of Western Australia, says his dream trip has now turned into something of a nightmare.

“I’m sitting here alone, I did have friends but they left about four days ago. They're now stuck in Colombia and going through it as well," he said.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a level four travel advisory on the entire world, telling all Australians not to travel overseas.

That followed the Department of Foreign Affairs informing all Australians already abroad to return home on commercial flights as soon as possible.

But Australians overseas are struggling to follow the government’s advice.

“It is lockdown here, you're not allowed to leave your building. If I go out I have to take my passport in case I get pulled over by the police,” Mr Cruse told SBS News.

Mr Cruise poses with friends at the Incan citadel of Machu Picchu, high in the Andes Mountains of Peru.
Source: Supplied

The 43 year old had tried to make arrangements to fly out.

"I had booked a ticket to fly out of here on Tuesday, then I got a message saying that you had to get out (as soon as possible). There was no time to book anything, everything was already sort of taken," he said.

“I can’t make any phone calls (to the airlines). It’s backed up. It just seems to be uncontactable which doesn’t help.

“We can't do anything until they open the airways. I thought about trying to get a bus out of here but they closed that down too.”

Mr Cruse had originally planned to end his trip by visiting the United States, eventually returning home from Dallas on 9 April.

The chances of that happening now seem very slim, and a severe financial cost is likely to accompany the Australian on his journey home.

“I’ve saved up enough to come away with but wasn't planning on spending everything I've got. If I have to stay over here it's not going to be good,” he said.

“I’ve sort of been financially struggling as it is at home, I start to get a little bit ahead and then something like this happens.”

Mr Cruse says he has spoken with his girlfriend daily with hopes of keeping his spirits up.
Source: Supplied

Mr Cruse says while things are dire on the ground, he has turned to those back home for emotional support.

"I've got a girlfriend who I speak to every day. She tries to keep me positive but it's hard,” he said.

Mr Cruse says the government should ramp up its dialogue with worldwide authorities.

“Get some sort of negotiations going, the embassy here in Peru has closed down. We’re sort of left with no communication there. I just want to get home,” he said.

‘We feel abandoned’

After travelling around South America for two months, 22-year old Ashlee Baker and her travel companions 25-year-old Ali MacGregor and her sister, 22-year-old Tess, say they’re ready to come home.

Now in their third week in Peru, the trio says the spread of coronavirus has made life very difficult.

Tess MacGregor, Ashlee Baker and Ali MacGregor say they have been offered little information on how to return to Australia.
Source: Supplied

“We were going through Cusco and then the next day we were hit with a 15-day lockdown by the (Peruvian) government. We were taken aback,” Tess told SBS News.

“It was fine up until the day before. We had our Inca Trail hike which we checked into. The operator said it was fine, then we came back later that afternoon to hear ‘it’s cancelled. Also, get on the next flight home,’” Ashlee added.

The group of young travellers began immediately searching for a way to fly home to Perth.

“We straight away went to see an airline to see if we could get any flights changed, they were obviously extraordinarily expensive, so we were contemplating where we were going to go next,” Ali said.

“We went to the airport and we couldn't get in because they shut the gates and the police were not letting anyone in who hadn't purchased a ticket already."

Ashlee added: “We were trying to go to Bolivia, Chile, we were trying Lima because the Australian embassy is there but we just couldn’t get out.”

After spending a night in their hotel, the property was shut down and the young women were forced out onto the street.

The three young travellers are now assessing their best opportunities to return home to Australia.
Source: Supplied

From there, the group managed to squeeze into a hostel before finding a longer-term stay at a BnB property.

Now with little certainty about their future, Tess says the group feels let down by authorities.

“The Australian embassy (in Lima) is closed. The embassy has been no help,” she said.

Ali said: “Everything is changing minute-by-minute so we’re really confused."

“We were able to get in touch with our parents back in Perth, trying to call our travel agent and try and help us out. We’re still pretty isolated here.”

Ashlee added: "We feel abandoned and very scared at this time and just want to come home."

‘Very mixed signals’

Gaye Tarrant and her husband Brett live in Washington State and are halfway through a three-year work secondment.

Each year, the Australian couple and their two children travel back home from the United States to visit family and friends.

Brett and Gaye Tarrant, who currently reside in the US state of Washington, were forced to abandon their trip home to see family in Australia.
Source: Supplied

“Both of my parents are in their 80s so this was important to me especially as I have always been very close to my family,” Mrs Tarrant told SBS News.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced this family to shelve their much-anticipated homecoming.

“Part of our trip home was to extend our working visa for all of us as you have to leave the country to get it," Mrs Tarrant said.

"When they closed our schools for six weeks we thought we would probably fly out this week - but had to wait until Monday to get some feedback from the travel company and the consulate.

“In the space of two days, Australia imposed the self isolation which would have meant we would have to spend most of the time in Australia quarantining ourselves anyway."

Despite their setbacks, the family is hoping to return to Australia later in the year.

“Our family is of course really disappointed but they understand. It has been very hard on them especially since we have a 12 and 10 year old so they are growing up so quickly. Thank goodness for FaceTime,” Mrs Tarrant said.

Mrs Tarrant believes that while health authority advice has been consistent, she says the same does not apply for other sources of information.

“I think the information from the CDC and WHO has been reasonably consistent then the politicians got involved and it became confusing and then social media was a nightmare with so much incorrect advice on there,” she told SBS News.

“I think the Governor of Washington State was a leader, which he had to be with the quick infection rate and death rate (resulting from COVID-19 outbreaks) near Seattle. We have had no real contact from Australia and no advice. We have had to rely on family and friends telling us what was going on over there.”

As an Australian living abroad, Mrs Tarrant said some ex-pats felt Australia was possibly behind other nations in its early stage response to the crisis.

“Once our restrictions started it was a quick escalation and it seemed here that Australia wasn’t really taking it seriously. Of course, that is changing rapidly over the last couple of days,” she said.

Mrs Tarrant adds that there are lessons to be learnt from the US's response to COVID-19.

“It is really interesting to see how the different states are doing over here. We have always marvelled at how the states have such different taxes and rules, and once again they have had such vastly different responses,” she said.

“I do think that a national response is the best way to go.”

'Do not travel'

In a statement to SBS News, the Department of Home Affairs and Trade says it is doing everything it can to assist Australians who are overseas, including those struggling to return home from South America.

"The Australian Government is in close contact with the Peruvian Government, likeminded embassies, airlines and travel companies, to identify and facilitate possible travel options for Australians to depart Peru," a spokesperson said.

"The Embassy is urgently seeking local authorities’ agreement to enable an Australian tour company to offer the option for a commercial departure for Australians.

"We understand this is a difficult and stressful situation and we strongly recommend that Australians follow the directions and advice of local authorities, and continue to monitor www.smartraveller.gov.au and the Australian Embassy’s social media in Peru."

DFAT is also encouraging Australians who are overseas to check its Smart Traveller website for the latest developments.

"Regardless of your destination, age or health, our advice is do not travel at this time," the resource warns.

"As more countries close their borders or introduce travel restrictions, overseas travel is becoming more complex and difficult. You may not be able to return to Australia when you had planned to. Consider whether you have access to health care and support systems if you get sick while overseas. If you decide to return to Australia, do so as soon as possible. Commercial options may become less available."

"If you are overseas and cannot, or do not want to, return to Australia, follow the advice of local authorities. Take care to minimise your risk of exposure to coronavirus including by self-isolating. If you choose to stay, note our ability to provide consular assistance in some places may be limited due to restrictions on movement and other services," Smart Traveller warns.

"If you decide to return to Australia, you will now be required to self-isolate for 14 days. This applies to all travellers, including Australian citizens. For details see the Australian Border Force website."

As of Tuesday afternoon, only people who have recently travelled from overseas or have been in contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case and experienced symptoms within 14 days are advised to be tested.

Coronavirus symptoms can range from mild illness to pneumonia, according to the Federal Government's website, and can include a fever, coughing, sore throat, fatigue and shortness of breath.
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.

Published 18 March 2020 at 6:10pm
By Naveen Razik, Adam Marsters