COVID-19 has presented an unprecedented global problem and we’ve seen different approaches pursued by these countries’ leaders to varying degrees of effectiveness. Australia’s response, on the whole, has been one of withdrawal and isolation in order to protect its residents, and while this approach may be seen as an effective strategy for those living within Australia’s borders, to thousands of expats who live abroad, it’s had devastating impacts.

As an Australian living abroad in the United States myself, and one who speaks to hundreds and thousands of expats every year, I’ve seen first hand the impact that Australia’s border closures and movement restrictions have had.

Why am I writing this?

I want one thing: When you’re reading articles about “expats stuck abroad” and imagine someone choosing to run home because their holiday has ended who could have returned sooner, think instead of the people in the stories below.

Think of the families who have tried, the individuals who are alone, and those who face unthinkably difficult decisions in leaving partners, family, and lives overseas by no choice of their own.

An important note that I do understand

I want to make sure I highlight early in this article that I do understand that the Australian Government has a responsibility to protect Australia and its residents. I know that there is increasing pressure from all sides on what exactly the best course of action is for the country moving forward and understand that the decisions made each day are incredibly difficult and striking a balance is not an enviable task.

However.

Australians who live abroad are still Australians who need to be considered equally in this equation.

When I decided to move abroad, I wasn’t giving up my Australian citizenship, and I was excited to land in a foreign country and tell people that I was from Australia. As a general rule, it’s a proud moment to say that you’re an Australian in the United States because Australia, being so far away, is seen as a foreign land of adventure and mystery, and Australians abroad take extreme pleasure in telling endless stories of wild animals and wide-brown lands.

Part of being Australian is a yearning to explore and see the world. That is a value that I grew up having instilled in me, that Australians could achieve anything, anywhere, and when I turned 29 and had the resources to do so, I decided to pursue that dream.

While it’s cheesy and absolutely clichéd, Peter Allen’s “I Still Call Australia Home”, a song used by Australia to promote its own spirit, is all about this desire:

I been to cities that never close down
From New York to Rio and Old London Town
But no matter how far or how wide I roam
I still call Australia home

I’m always travelling
I love being free
And so I keep leaving the sun and the sea
But my heart lies waiting over the foam
I still call Australia home

All the sons and daughters
Spinning around the world
Away from their family and friends
But as the world gets older and colder
Its good to know where your journey ends

So when planning to move my life I knew that if it all went horribly wrong, I can always return to a city and a country that I love. In the last 3 months, this has felt less and less possible.

I’ve read the discussions and the comments online and seen the response from many in Australia saying “they should have come back earlier” and “they decided to move over there” but as you’ll read in the stories I share below, this isn’t the reality for many.

I am one of the lucky ones who does have a support network in Australia and even for me, it wasn’t possible to assess in February and March of 2020 that it was time to end my life in the U.S. as I know it, leave my (now) fiancée, and move back to a country where I don’t have a home or a job. The move isn’t a simple “return to home”, it’s just as difficult and involved as moving your life abroad in the first place. An online comment about expats as a general group doesn’t include consideration for the individual mental, financial, and logistical hurdles that such a move requires.

For many, the desire to return right now isn’t by choice.

I think a lot of the discussion around expats returning misses the crucial point that a lot of those who live abroad weren’t planning to make this move back to Australia and in many cases it’s completely out of their control.

Take for example the United States: If you lose your job while on a working visa (like the E3 visa, which accounts for thousands of Australians in the US) a timer starts. You have 60 days to leave the country, and for many at that time, due to how health insurance is arranged, you do not have any health insurance either. You are now in a foreign country, without an income, without health insurance, without a plan.

Panic sets in. You need to return to Australia.

You look up flights only to find (at the writing of this) that right now you can’t get a flight until mid-November (32% of respondents in our questionnaire faced this issue). By that stage, you’ll be pushing up against the 60-day limit, and if you overstay that you are in violation of immigration law. Not only that, but the flights available cost thousands of dollars one-way (33% of respondents in our questionnaire faced this issue), and you no longer have an income. Even if you do have savings to get flights back to Australia, you weren’t expecting them to cost this much. You also know that when you land in Australia, you have to pay for quarantine, which for one person (let alone a family of 4) is now around $3,000.

That situation is already frightening enough, and then add into that the fact that the flight caps likely mean that you will be bumped from a flight (36% of respondents were bumped from flights).

This isn’t one person’s hypothetical, this is what hundreds and thousands of Australians are facing right now. At last estimate, the number of Australians trying to return to Australia was between 25,000 and 100,000.

The stories of those stuck abroad

America Josh is a website and community for Australians and international expats to assist with their move from their home country to the United States. That focus has shifted in 2020 as COVID has meant the number of international arrivals has dwindled, and instead, my work has been in supporting those Australians who are now abroad without a safety net.

I wanted to get a feel for how the community of those who live abroad feel about Australia and have detailed the results below. As part of this exercise, we asked questions of 203 Australians living around the world for their stories and their reviews. Some have been attempting to get home without success, some are planning to return in the future, and some have successfully returned.

Most importantly though were the stories that were told to me by so many, and are the stories I will start sharing over the coming days. Of the 203 respondents, 63 shared details about their situation and agreed to share them and I think the best way to show the true impact of the current situation is to tell their stories.

Someday we’ll all be together once more
When all of the ships come back to the shore
I realise something I’ve always known
I still call Australia home

I will be sharing a new story every day. To read all the stories we’ve published, click here.

To submit your own story, click here.

Keren N (United Kingdom to Victoria)

Getting to the point of flying was traumatic to say the least. It would take an entire essay to explain every component. We found out our visa exemption status would not be supported past 31st July right as Boris Johnson told the UK to stay home, save lives. Scott Morrison (despite lying recently and saying he told all Australians to return immediately in March) also told expat Aussies to stay put if it was safe to do so, so we did. It also takes several months to pack up an entire life, including 4 teenagers in school. I gave notice to resign at the end of June for my job.

Keep reading Keren’s story.

Anonymous (USA to Victoria)

As covid hit and Scott Morrison made announcements about returning ASAP, I wondered whether that was my trigger to move.

But – I’d just signed a new lease, was due to deliver two 12 month projects I’d been leading within a few months, and my travel agent advised me that I’d probably need to book a flight within a few a days. I simply couldn’t wrap all of that in such a short time, logistically or emotionally.

Keep reading Anonymous’s story.

Erin (USA to NSW)

I booked again, for the end of June (only JUST making it in time for my visa to not expire) and had to spend an extra 3 grand on return business class tickets to satisfy visa conditions. This flight (all Qantas flights) from the USA to Aus were then cancelled.

Meanwhile, my visa expired.

Keep reading Erin’s story.

Bella (Saudi Arabia to Queensland)

Traveling with 3 kids on my own. My husband is trying to get a job but we have 60 days to leave the country as Saudi laws. My dog can’t come with is as it supposed to stay here for 5 months more to be allowed to travel to Australia. No school since March 9th. Embassy give information only through Facebook page. Not help at all from anyone

We need help.

Keep reading Bella’s story.