Thousands of Australians stranded overseas in the face of government’s stringent border controls
While situations differ, one point remains the same — Australians abroad feel abandoned by their government during the coronavirus pandemic.
The cap has resulted in a barrage and backlog of canceled flights, with ticket prices skyrocketing.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) says at least 25,000 Australians, many of who are financially and medically vulnerable, have registered their need to come home since July. However, the Board of Airline Representatives of Australia estimates the true number of those stranded is closer to 100,000.
Before the cap was put in place, Australia already had some of the world’s strictest coronavirus travel measures. Since March, hotel quarantine has been mandated, foreign tourists have been barred from entry and citizens banned from leaving.
Those trying to return home now are Australian citizens who left the country prior to the pandemic, not holiday makers.
“You should have come home”
Stuck in Abu Dhabi, Stephen Spencer is now struggling to return to Australia with his family.
Courtesy Kate Spencer
In the first three months following international border closures, over 357,000 Australian citizens returned home, according to DFAT.
Contrast that to the past two months, where the cap restricted entry to just over 30,000 Australian citizens. It’s the argument of critics, including Trade Minister Simon Birmingham, that citizens should have returned in the early stages of the pandemic.
“If you wanted to come back you should have already come back in most circumstances,” said Birmingham.
A number of Australians currently stranded abroad told CNN that while the government did urge citizens to return home in March, it was a message aimed at short term travelers.
Those who had a permanent job, home and savings were advised by their consulates to stay put. No one in March could predict the trajectory the pandemic would take, nor the impact it would have on their lives. Six months on, many still have a secure income and home, while others have had their lives crumble apart.
For Stephen Spencer in Abu Dhabi, returning to Australia in March would’ve meant quitting his job, uprooting his kids’ education and abandoning his house — with nothing secured on the other side. Spencer and his wife Kate chose the most stable option for their kids, which was to ride it out in Abu Dhabi.
Several months later, Spencer lost his job and is now struggling to get his family home. As the sponsor of his wife and teenagers, once he cancels their visas, an act he must do before they leave, they will have just 30 days to exit the country.
“If we are unable to get on a flight to Australia, we are effectively living as refugees, with no legal right to remain in the UAE and a home country that will not allow us to return,” he explained. “I cannot believe how quickly the Australian government abandoned its citizens overseas.”
It’s a story retold by many of those stranded.
Sarah Tasneem was living in Canada when the invisible enemy caused the world to go into hibernation. She had a stable job and was undergoing the process of permanent residency. However, her application was canceled by the Canadian government in June, resulting in the loss of employment. She is now running out of money and is unable to work while she fights to get home.
“I am worried I will eventually face deportation,” Tasneem said. “I am running out of time.”
She has been advised by her embassy to take money out of her retirement fund. It was an option made available to all Australians earlier in the year, however, is not one she feels comfortable with.
“I feel like they’ve forgotten us”
Emily Altamirano and her uncle, who contracted the coronavirus.
Courtesy Emily Altamirano
For others, it was not stability that caused them to stay abroad, but rather a lack of options.
For Emily Altamirano, the flight caps are just the latest barrier in a six-month bid to return home. When international borders started closing, Altamirano was visiting family in Peru.
Commercial flights from the region to Australia stopped, and she was unable to board a repatriation flight after her uncle contracted the coronavirus. Following his recovery, she’s since been trying to fly to Australia via the United States, however, has been unsuccessful in securing a ticket due to the caps.
“It’s like they [the government] have forgotten us,” said Altamirano.
Carmelina Ciampa also feels like she’s been left to fend for herself. Late last year, she traveled with her youngest son to Italy to care for her mother, Rosa, who had been diagnosed with cancer. Her husband and eldest son stayed in Australia.
Refusing to leave her mother on her death bed, Ciampa stayed in Italy through the beginning of the pandemic. Last month, her mother passed away and Ciampa has since been unable to reunite her family due to the flight cap.
“My son asked me to try to get to Australia by boat, and I actually looked at whether I could travel by cargo ship,” Ciampa described of her desperation to return home.
Carmelina Ciampa, pictured with her youngest son, in Italy. Her husband and eldest son are in Australia.
Courtesy Carmelina Ciampa
The price tag of returning home
For some, returning to Australia means leaving loved ones.
Brooke Saward, an Australian expat in South Africa, says she saw the Australian passport as akin to holding a four-leaf clover. But now, the kangaroo and emu coat of arms is proving to be a curse.
With work drying up and an overstayed visa, she’s trying to return home from Cape Town. Her departure will mean leaving her South African boyfriend, unsure when she will see him again.
“It came down to a decision of where I need to be, not where I want to be,” Saward explained.
“This constant unknown feeling of when you can get home to your family, when you can be earning an income again, when you can have health care… is enough to keep you up at night, every night.”
While the limbo of love is an intangible loss, the price tag of returning home is very tangible.
For Saward, rates for flights home start from over $12,000 AUD (about US$8,650), 12 times that of a normal one-way ticket from Johannesburg to Sydney.
With no commercial flights available, she booked a chartered flight, which was consequently denied by the Australian government. Simply put, too many Australian citizens expressed a need to come home from South Africa.
Running out of options, Saward looked at flying to New Zealand and chartering a private jet to Australia. This option was approved by the Australian government, however New Zealand, which also has strict travel measures, declined her transit visa.
Brooke Saward and her South African boyfriend Andre.
Courtesy Brooke Saward
It’s one of many examples that have led stranded Australians to believe the wealthier are being prioritized over the vulnerable.
At the beginning of September, the Australian government announced a one-off loan of $2,000 AUD for individuals stranded abroad to book an economy-class ticket. Not only was it a drop in the water for the travel expenses of many unemployed expats, but also fails to meet the mark of the current reality.
Many of those stranded have told CNN that it’s near impossible to currently get home on an economy class ticket. Airlines have been prioritizing business class tickets, due to the financial viability of flying just around 20 passengers. Bear in mind, on top of the business class price tag comes the additional $3,000 AUD mandatory hotel quarantine fee upon arrival.
Since the pandemic began, Qatar Airways has been at the forefront of repatriating Australians, after Australia’s national airline, Qantas, halted all international flights.
Last week, Qatar Airways called on the Australian government to increase the caps, arguing that it is not financially viable for the airline to continue operating at just under 90% empty.
“Too little, too late”
Commercial flights flying into Australia these days are nearly empty due to the goverment’s strict arrival caps.
Courtesy Patricia Sterling
With the caps currently in place until October 24, Prime Minister Morrison has acknowledged the need to increase them but is yet to provide a path forward. Health Minister Greg Hunt said on Sunday that he wants to “ensure that every Australian that wants to come home is home by Christmas”. It’s a promise that many of those stranded see as a matter of too little too late.
Carol Thompson says her family is shattered, after several months of attempting to get her 21-year-old son, who is now suffering severe depression, home from the United Kingdom.
“I am desperate for my son to get home,” she said.
Saward reiterated Thompson’s pressures, saying, “Living in a global pandemic is enough to challenge a person’s mental health, let alone being stranded in a foreign country.”
Meanwhile, a now jammed backlog of flights has created a long path forward for expats like Carol Schenk.
“I’m aware of flights out of Dubai already getting canceled for January,” said Schenk, who is currently stuck in Oman. “It leaves little to no hope of us returning home any time soon.”
CNN has requested comment from Morrison and other government officials. However, at the time of publishing they have not responded.
How The Coronavirus Pandemic Is Exacerbating The Mental Health Crisis At UK Universities
10 min read
Student representatives have warned that the impact of the coronavirus pandemic will only worsen the mental health crisis that has gripped British universities in recent years.
“There was a mental health crisis across universities prior to the pandemic,” said Sara Khan, NUS vice president for equality and liberation.
“Students were not being given adequate support or access to mental health services, and the pandemic has only exacerbated these issues.”
Statistics from the past decade paint a poor picture of the state of mental health provisions across higher education.
There was a fivefold increase in first-year students reporting a mental health problem in the 10 years to 2016, according to a recent IPPR study, and 94% of higher education institutions claimed to have seen a rise in demand for counselling services over the past five years.
The result has been widespread reports of long waits for support services, lack of funding, inconsistencies in approach across the sector, and significant gaps in NHS provision.
And the cost has sometimes been tragic—2015 saw a record number of deaths by suicide among students, representing a 79% rise since 2007.
The crisis came into the spotlight in 2018 after it was revealed that at least 11 students at the University of Bristol had died by suspected suicide in just 18 months.
James Murray, whose son Ben committed suicide at the university in 2016, said he feared the next crisis in university mental health was already on the horizon.
If we can’t physically see somebody to spot the signs because they’re working remotely, then we’ve got a potential crisis on our hands
– James Murray, father of Ben Murray who committed suicide as a student in 2016
“I think the first thing is to recognise that, sadly, the stats tell us that students are most vulnerable at this time of year. The highest peak in suicides is in January,” he told the BBC’s Today programme.
“And we know from pre-Covid days that there were 95 student deaths in 2016. And one in five students has suicidal thoughts, ideation, that doesn’t necessarily lead to suicide, but it makes them vulnerable.
“Given that two-thirds of the suicides are unknown to support, if we can’t physically see somebody to spot the signs because they’re working remotely, then we’ve got a potential crisis on our hands. January is the crunch month and I’d like to see more action.”
Steps were being taken by the government late last year to remedy the situation, including supporting a sector-backed University Mental Health Charter, which set out best practice and recognised institutions demonstrating it.
But much of this progress has been hindered by the ongoing pandemic, and many have criticised the government for advocating the return of students to university campuses, only for them to be met with online-only classes, limits on social activities and the threat of coronavirus quarantines.
Thousands of students across the UK were told to self-isolate due to coronavirus (Image: PA)
“The decision to encourage students back to campuses was motivated by income over the welfare of students,” Ms Khan said.
“The marketised system of higher education has meant that universities were forced to prioritise tuition fees over the safety of their students, in order to secure their future sustainability.
“This is completely unacceptable and has led to a complete lack of consideration of the effect that this would have on students.”
How this social isolation could impact the mental health of young people this academic year is one of the biggest areas of concern, said Sophia Hartley, welfare officer at Leeds University Union (LUU).
She told PoliticsHome: “Many students in Leeds have already had to experience a two-week isolation period which naturally lends itself to low mood, anxiety around leaving the house and feeling closed off from the outside world.”
“All students want is to be heard. This can sometimes feel like an impossible task when you are one voice amongst a group of almost forty thousand. However, it is so important that students feel like their needs are met.”
Though the university had been able to expand the capacity of its services, said Katie Hughes, LUU’s deputy head of help and support, they were seeing many more students struggling with the new normal.
Nightline reported triple the number of calls relating to loneliness or problems with friends and family between March and April this year
“What we are hearing is that students who have previously been able to manage their mental health are finding that the strategies they’ve used before aren’t currently an option, for example seeing friends and family, taking part in group sports activities etc., so they are reaching out to try and find alternative ways,” she explained.
Statistics published by Nightline—a student-run listening service operating at universities across the UK—tell a similar story.
Their phone lines reported triple the number of calls relating to loneliness or problems with friends and family between March and April this year, as well as double the number of calls related to academic stress.
No data is available yet for the current academic year, but according to Beth Scahill, coordinator of Nottingham University’s Nightline, a similar trend was playing out on their service.
“We’ve seen more use out of our phone lines than actually through our instant messaging service,” she said.
“More people have been calling us rather than messaging us, which I thought was quite interesting because it seems people are missing their human contact and sometimes it’s nicer to hear someone’s voice than to see a message.”
There are concerns about the impact of social isolation may have on young people (Image: PA)
The universities contacted by PoliticsHome reported that they had been able to offer expanded and/or adapted mental health provisions, such as delivering one-to-one counselling via Zoom or setting up digital support groups to help struggling students.
But, there were still accounts of young people who had seen therapy services disrupted due to the pandemic, or had struggled to access support when needed.
One student said she had been offered three mindfulness sessions in April by her university while suffering poor mental health, but had them cancelled after one appointment as the counsellor administering them had been furloughed.
Meanwhile, an undergraduate at a different institution said the counselling service took four weeks to reply to him at the height of lockdown, only for them to say they were unable to offer any sessions.
And, as students returned for the new school year, concerns were raised after thousands of students across the UK were forced to self-isolate regardless of whether they had symptoms of coronavirus.
Undergraduates at Manchester Metropolitan University, where 1,700 people were required to quarantine in late September, complained they felt “neglected” and were struggling to access food.
Even before the pandemic, students were placed on long waiting lists for access to mental health services – we cannot have students falling through the cracks now.
– Shadow minister for mental health Rosena Allin-Khan
Shadow minister for mental health Rosena Allin-Khan is now leading calls for the government to step in and ensure universities have support provisions in place.
Writing for The House Live earlier this month, she said young people were facing a “unique set of challenges during the pandemic” resulting in a “mental health crisis ready to explode”. Her proposed measures, however, are yet to be brought forward.
“Even before the pandemic, students were placed on long waiting lists for access to mental health services – we cannot have students falling through the cracks now,” she told PoliticsHome.
“The Education Secretary acknowledged that the situation on campuses will affect the mental health of students. However, the Government has failed to act on our request for a package of support for students’ mental health.
“Students cannot be forgotten in the crisis–their mental health and wellbeing depends on it.”
Meanwhile, NUS vice president Ms Khan said universities needed show greater flexibility and offer more support for students self-isolating
“Universities should be providing care packages with food, household products, wellbeing materials and general necessities, and targeted educational and mental health support, with facilitation of social activity,” she added.
“The government needs to fully fund our education and healthcare systems, otherwise the student mental health crisis, which existed pre-Covid-19 and is only being exacerbated now, will persist.”
My students are telling me now, ‘please don’t call quite so often we’re fine’. That’s not the point. The point is keeping in contact with them
– Professor Steve West, vice-chancellor of the University of the West of England
For now, many universities are focusing on how they can ensure the mental wellbeing of their students within existing resources.
Professor Steve West, vice-chancellor of the University of the West of England (UWE), said education leaders should prioritise keeping students in contact with their lecturers and tutors and giving them avenues to reach out if they need help/
“At my university, we have a 24-7 serious concerns helpline. And that helpline is available for parents or friends to raise concerns about their loved ones or friends. Students can also access it as well,” he told the Today programme.
“That’s been hugely important to make sure that we capture people early and continue to encourage students to call out and to ask for help.”
UWE is also using data analytics, he explained, to identify and understand when students were starting to disengage from university life so they could be contacted by university staff.
“Covid-19 has changed everybody’s life. So welfare calls into students who are self-isolating are hugely important, and they have to be regular,” he continued.
“In fact, my students are telling me now, ‘please don’t call quite so often we’re fine’. That’s not the point. The point is keeping in contact with them.”
Stephen Buckley, head of information at mental health charity Mind, had a similar message, urging young people struggling at university to talk to someone if they felt they needed help.
“It can be hard to know how to ask for help, or where to turn to. But if you notice changes to your thoughts, feelings and behaviours that last longer than two weeks, keep coming back, or affect your day-to-day life, tell someone you trust as soon as possible,” he said.
“If you feel you can’t talk to a GP, open up to a friend, family member or think about talking to an academic supervisor, tutor, or a welfare staff member, who can help get you the support you need.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Protecting the mental health of students continues to be a priority, which is why the Universities Minister convened a task force of higher education and health representatives to address the issues students are facing at this time.
“We have been clear that universities have a responsibility to support their students and many have bolstered their mental health and welfare services during the pandemic, particularly to support those students who are self-isolating.
“In response to the pandemic, we have worked closely with the Office for Students to provide up to £3 million to fund the mental health platform, Student Space, in addition to over £9 million of government funding to leading mental health charities.”
Need support? You can contact Samaritans 24-hour helpline on 116 123 or email email@example.com.
Mind’s confidential Infoline is available Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393. Mind’s website also has information on how to cope with student life and how to manage feelings related to coronavirus.
If students would like to find out if their university is covered by a Nightline, and what services they’re currently providing, they can check by visiting their website.
Israel and Sudan have agreed to normalize relations, Trump announces
Trump made the announcement from the Oval Office while joined on the phone by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Sudanese Chairman of the Sovereignty Council Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok.
According to a joint statement from the three countries, the leaders of Sudan and Israel “agreed to the normalization of relations between Sudan and Israel and to end the state of belligerence between their nations” and “agreed to begin economic and trade relations, with an initial focus on agriculture.”
“The leaders also agreed that delegations will meet in the coming weeks to negotiate agreements of cooperation in those areas as well as in agriculture technology, aviation, migration issues and other areas for the benefit of the two peoples. The leaders also resolved to work together to build a better future and advance the cause of peace in the region,” the joint statement said.
Netanyahu said Israeli and Sudanese delegations will meet “soon” to begin discussions on cooperation in various fields, such as agriculture and trade.
Palestinian leaders slammed the normalization agreement, with one calling it a “serious stab in the back of the Palestinian and Sudanese people.” Militant groups in Gaza also voiced their anger.
The normalization announcement came shortly after the White House said Trump had informed Congress of his intent to remove Sudan from the state sponsor of terrorism list. The rescission of the 27-year old designation was widely seen as being tied to the deal with Israel, despite Khartoum’s initial desire to keep the issues separate.
Speaking from the Oval Office on Friday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the normalization and move to lift Sudan from the state sponsor of terrorism list “both have one thing in common: They made sense for the Sudanese people.”
Pompeo said Sudan “did all the things that they needed to do” to be removed from the list and he noted that the US wanted to support the civilian-led government, which was established after Sudan’s strongman leader, Omar al-Bashir, was ousted in a military coup in April 2019 after three decades in power.
“The Sudanese leadership is now driving toward a really strong outcome and improved life for the people of Sudan and we think for the broader region in north Africa as well,” he said.
Designation change required by Sudan
Senior government sources in Sudan told CNN earlier this week that the state sponsor of terrorism designation change was a requirement by Hamdok, the leader of the transitional government in Sudan, before talks on normalization could proceed.
“The designation change was our priority and normalization is theirs,” one source said.
The Trump campaign has touted the President’s foreign policy achievements in the Middle East. In the past several weeks the administration has overseen normalization agreements between Israel and both the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, and has teased that additional countries could follow suit.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said in a statement that the formal notification to Congress “follows on Sudan’s recent agreement to resolve certain claims of United States victims of terror and their families.” Sudan agreed to settle with survivors and families of victims of the 1998 attacks on the US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, the 2000 attack on the USS Cole and the 2008 murder of US Agency for International Development employee John Granville in Khartoum.
“Yesterday, in fulfillment of that agreement, the transitional government of Sudan transferred $335 million into an escrow account for these victims and their families,” she said.
“Today represents a momentous step forward in the United States-Sudan bilateral relationship and marks a pivotal turning point for Sudan, allowing for a new future of collaboration and support for its ongoing and historic democratic transition,” she said.
Hamdok thanked Trump for the move to lift the designation.
The spokesman for Sudan’s sovereign council, Mohammed Al Faki, told CNN: “We have been formally notified that President Trump has signed the order rescinding Sudan’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terror. The order will be enacted in 45 days.”
Congress does have the ability to overturn the President’s decision to remove the designation, but only if both the House and Senate pass veto-proof joint resolutions of disapproval within 45 days.
Sudan has been listed as a state sponsor of terrorism since 1993, and it is one of only four nations total designated as such. Iran, North Korea and Syria are also listed. As a result, Sudan faces a series of restrictions including a ban on defense exports and sales and restrictions on US foreign assistance.
According to the joint statement, “The United States will take steps to restore Sudan’s sovereign immunity and to engage its international partners to reduce Sudan’s debt burdens, including advancing discussions on debt forgiveness consistent with the Highly Indebted Poor Countries Initiative.”
In her statement Friday, McEnany called on Congress to “act now to pass the legislation required to ensure that the American people rapidly realize the full benefits of this policy breakthrough.”
Stuart Newberger, an attorney at Crowell & Moring who represents US victims of the 1998 embassy bombings and their families, told CNN this week that Congress must pass legislation because the agreement between Washington and Khartoum “requires that Sudan be basically relieved of being sued in federal court as a sponsor of terror under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.”
“So that’s why Congress has to get involved to provide Sudan what’s called ‘legal peace.’ The President can’t do that on his own; that’s something only Congress can do,” he said.
Such legislation must be passed before the $335 million can be paid out.
However, some are concerned that legislation that implements the settlement will imperil pending litigation from 9/11 families and victims against Sudan.
Others, including some victims of the twin al Qaeda bombings of the US embassies in Nairiobi and Dar es Salaam, have objected to the terms of the settlement — it would give different payouts to those embassy employees who were US citizens at the time of the attacks, those who have since become US citizens and those who are still foreign nationals.
However, other victims of the bombings and family members welcomed the news earlier this week that Trump intended to lift the state sponsor of terrorism designation and urged Congress “to immediately pass the legislation that is needed to implement the agreement, and begin the payment process.”
This story has been updated with further details.
CNN’s Nikki Carvajal, Oren Liebermann, Nima Elbagir, Yassir Abdullah, Abeer Salman and Ibrahim Dahman contributed to this report.
Senate inches closer to Barrett’s confirmation despite Dem tactics
“Every new escalation, every new step, every new shattered precedent, every one of them, was initiated over there,” McConnell said.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer shot back, saying McConnell is using “a convoluted version of history … to justify steering the Senate towards one of the lowest moments in its long history.”
Senate Democrats have accused Republicans of hypocrisy for moving to confirm Barrett eight days before the election, after blocking former President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland in 2016. But Republicans argue that history is on their side because unlike in 2016, the White House and the Senate are now controlled by the same party.
In an act of protest, Senate Democrats forced the Senate Friday to go into a rare closed door session, which lasted about 20 minutes and ended after a party-line vote. The Senate has not held a closed-door session in more than a decade.
Senators emerged from the session saying that nothing notable happened. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) described the move as “a super-spreader event” since the lawmakers remained in the chamber and in close quarters.
“It’s just for show,” Rubio said. “It’s just theater. It’s just so they can tell their activist class that they’re fighting tooth and nail every step of the way. It’s just for show. It is what it is.”
Democrats also boycotted a Senate Judiciary Committee vote on Thursday to advance Barrett’s nomination to the floor and have forced a series of procedural votes throughout the week. But they do not have the procedural tools to stop the nomination altogether from going forward.
Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) voted Friday against a procedural step to move to Barrett’s confirmation. Both senators have said they oppose Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court before the election, but it’s unclear if they will vote against her final confirmation.
If confirmed, Barrett would replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who passed away Sept. 18.
Burgess Everett and Andrew Desiderio contributed to this report.
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