An Australian uni student trapped in Spain has shared her heartbreaking story of becoming stuck overseas and the daily fear and anxiety she experiences being far from home.
Naomi Nguyen, a 22-year-old from Sydney, had been working as an English language assistant at a high school in Valencia for three months when the country entered lockdown on Saturday March 14.
She is one of more than 19,000 citizens and permanent residents stuck overseas, with the government now organising a rescue mission to bring them back.
In a Facebook post, the 22-year-old described how she found herself caught in Europe as the coronavirus restrictions escalated rapidly within 24 hours.
‘Friday, I was at work at my school. Friday night, every business closed indefinitely. Midnight Saturday, we could no longer leave the house,’ she wrote.
‘Initially we were told it would be two weeks inside, that was all we were given. Very few other countries at that time had closed, it was a somewhat localised problem within a very few countries.
‘When Australia made the call out for Australians to come home, this was very clearly aimed toward “Australian travellers”. For many others who are now stuck overseas, they were told to stay put if they had accommodation, jobs and health care, as I did.’
As the country shutdown, transport systems to major cities came to a halt – making it extremely difficult for those in smaller towns to travel to hubs with repatriation flights.
When the date pushed past two weeks, Ms Nguyen was told she would likely return to work in May, so decided to stay put to see her students through until the end of the Spanish school year, in June.
By the time the term was drawing to a close, the country had just reopened and Ms Nguyen booked the first available flight home in August. Her flights have since been moved twice.
‘Since the Australian government has now decided to bring in flight restrictions/capacities, it has been almost impossible to return home,’ she wrote.
‘In Sydney, it is also only 30 passengers per plane. So airlines are prioritising business passengers for those 30 seats, the only way to make money.
‘Most of us in economy have literally had our seats taken off us and given to someone else willing to pay for a business one. It is cruel.’
Ms Nguyen, who is a studying remotely, is now couch surfing at friends homes in the UK as her accounts run dry, hoping she can soon board a plane.
‘I have no means of income nor will the Australian government support us,’ she wrote, adding:’ The UK covers us medically through a reciprocal healthcare agreement, but many other Aussies in other countries are simply not even medically covered right now.’
Ms Nguyen said she and others have endured taunts online such as ‘ you should have come home earlier’ and ‘you deserve to be stuck’.
She said she hopes sharing her story will break down the misconceptions travellers have faced.
‘I want everyone to remember that many Australians (and other nationals) that are/were trapped overseas were caught up in jobs, mortgages, schooling, university,’ Ms Nguyen wrote.
‘We had lives that we were in the midst of, some people having to sell homes and cars. It was never the easy choice of, shall I simply get on a plane or not?’
The student has joined a Facebook blog, Just Trying To Get Home, dedicated to ‘changing the dialogue and raising awareness’ by sharing personal stories of anguish and anxiety being stuck abroad.
‘I used to curl up in my bed at night and cry, because I wanted to be on the lounge, under a blanket with my mum. I often yearn for my own bed, my own family & friends, and anything even remotely normal when the world seems to be caving in around me,’ Ms Nguyen wrote.
‘Instead I find myself stuck 17,000km away with no reprieve. I keep thinking of that sign just before walking out of Sydney Airport, “G’day, Welcome Home”. What I would do to still be welcome home.
‘Savings accounts inching closer and closer toward zero. Hopping from couch to couch and consistently living out of a suitcase.
‘You feel lost, displaced, unaccounted for. You feel shunned, ignored, left behind. I have never felt so isolated and alone. I have never felt so disregarded, as if I am nothing, as if I don’t matter, as if I am worthless. ‘
It comes as the Morrison government has launched an evacuation program to collect stranded Australians from overseas and place them into quarantine programs.
The plan is being worked on by Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Home Affairs and Defence to assist Australians who urgently need to return home but have been blocked by the cap.
Government officials have also been encouraging desperate Australians to launch GoFundMe campaigns to raise travel funds, the Sydney Morning Herald reports.
A multi-million dollar fund is also being set aside to help Australians overseas in dire need of financial support.
The rescue plan is being developed as a response to a range of circumstances, such as Australians being deported from countries who have cancelled their visa and will not renew them.
It is unclear whether existing commercial flights would be used for the process, or whether airlines would be commissioned to conduct special runs.
The federal government plans to quarantine returned travellers in smaller towns, amid concerns by state politicians that capital cities will not have the capacity to deal with repatriates if the cap is lifted.
Remote locations in Western Australia and the Northern Territory are being considered as potential quarantine destinations, according to senior government sources.
A review on the number of international travellers permitted to enter the country, which currently stands at 4000 a week, will be reviewed next month.
The blueprint comes in response to anger from stranded citizens, growing uneasiness among Australia’s network of ambassadors, and complaints to MPs.
Earlier this week, Australians stranded abroad by coronavirus slammed Scott Morrison over a letter he issued admonishing them for not coming home earlier.
Desperate to return, some wrote to the prime minister personally pleading their circumstances and asking for the cap to be lifted.
Instead they received identical letters offering ‘platitudes’, and criticism for not returning in the early days of the pandemic.
‘These are difficult days for our country. The Covid-19 pandemic is a once in a hundred years event – an international health crisis,’ Mr Morrison began.
‘It is why I asked Australians to return home on March 17, 2020. At the time, DFAT expressly warned of the difficulties, noting that travel was becoming “more complex and difficult”.’
The inaccurate implication that all stranded Australians have no one to blame but themselves provoked outrage on support groups online.
Thousands of Australians live permanently overseas and had no intention of returning until the pandemic cost them their jobs and visas well after March 17.
Mr Morrison’s letter continued with what many travellers considered to be a condescending explanation of the border closure.
‘In view of recent outbreaks, we have put measures in place to help manage the pressure on quarantine facilities, including caps on international arrivals,’ it read.
‘I recognise these measures are frustrating, but they are essential to continue the success that Australia has achieved so far in minimising domestic spread of the pandemic.’
Mr Morrison wrote that the caps were ‘flexible’ to ‘minimise disruptions’ to returning Australians, but he has shown no willingness to increase them.
‘In the meantime, the advice of DFAT is clear: be patient; find a safe place to stay; follow the advice of local authorities and minimise your risk of exposure to Covid-19,’ he continued.
‘I appreciate the time you have taken to write to me, and wish you the best.’
Stranded Australians called Mr Morrison’s letter ‘heartless’ and ‘callous’ for offering no help and instead trying to shift the blame onto them.
‘Wow! What an ignorant and arrogant response! He says he kept Australia safe but he’s not actually keeping those Australians stuck overseas safe!’ one wrote.
Others noted that packing up and leaving with a few days notice was not possible for Australians who lived overseas for years.
‘Why don’t they get it we had a job, a home and a life on March 17 – why on earth would we have uprooted everything to return homeless and jobless when at the time we could sustain ourselves where we were?’ one wrote.
‘No one knew what was going to happen – this is a “I told you so” and “tough s**t” letter – how very disappointing.’
The DFAT advice Mr Morrison referred to only told Australians to come back if they ‘wish to return’ the government at the time encouraged anyone who was self-sufficient to stay put.
Strict arrival limits brought in last month mean the few airlines still flying to Australia cancel many flights because they are not economical.
Travellers report being bumped off up to eight flights in a row or forced to buy business class tickets on planes with just 30 passengers.
One way flights out of London, for reference, in the next two weeks are only affordable if they are two or three-stop marathons bouncing around the globe.
Even those cost more than $5,000 to Sydney, dropping to $2,000 by September, but are mostly on multiple airlines with a risk of being stranded mid-journey.