Stranded Australians are being reclassified to avoid embarrassing PM, Labor says | Australian politics

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Labor says Australians stranded overseas wanting to come home are being quietly reclassified in an attempt to avoid “bad headlines” over Scott Morrison’s failure to return them by Christmas.

On Sunday, the Sun Herald and ABC TV reported on the case of Laura Hartley, who found she and her family had been listed as “not seeking to return [to Australia] at this time” after she told the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade they had booked flights to return on 18 January.

Services Australia has been calling Australians overseas on behalf of Dfat to determine their intentions to return home, but witnesses to the Senate Covid-19 inquiry have complained they perceived the call as an attempt to pressure them off the list.

Despite Morrison suggesting all 26,700 Australians overseas who had registered by mid-September could be home by Christmas, the number of stranded Australians has grown to 36,875 and by 26 November just 14,000 of the original cohort had returned home.

On Sunday Hartley told ABC TV that after a call from Dfat in late November, she, her partner and their daughter were listed as no longer seeking to return to Australia, a “ludicrous” summary of the interaction – because she had given details of their return flight in the very next question.

“We definitely had our status changed and it was incorrect information and contradicted the other information we had given Dfat … so, it seemed obvious to me that was not right,” she said.

Hartley expressed concern that Qatar Airways might be more likely to bump her family from an overbooked flight as a result of the call. According to her account to the Sun Herald, the status was later changed to “I am seeking to return to Australia in 2020”.

Labor’s shadow foreign affairs minister, Penny Wong, accused the government of failing stranded Australians by not setting up a national quarantine centre, as suggested by the Jane Halton hotel quarantine review.

“The prime minister made a promise that people would be home by Christmas,” Wong told ABC’s Insiders.

“He won’t deliver on that promise, and what is clear is that he is more interested in avoiding bad headlines and getting good headlines, than actually helping people.”

Wong cited stories of “people being asked to come off the list”.

Dfat has denied artificially depressing statistics on those who want to return, saying it had “not take anyone off its lists of registered Australians overseas unless they ask to be taken off, or have successfully returned to Australia”.

On 26 November, one stranded Australian, David Jeffries, told the Covid-19 inquiry that after his Dfat call about his family’s intention to return home he “got the impression they were trying to talk us out of it”.

“They asked several times, in several different ways, whether we were sure we wanted to get home, to which I responded yes, including as many exclamation points as [the] online [form] allows.”

Carly McCrossin, who founded the Fly the Babies Home campaign, said she had “exactly the same” experience as Jeffries.

“I was told to ‘hang in there’ and asked the same question: ‘Are you moving back permanently; would you like to come back for Christmas?’

“It’s almost like they don’t understand the situation and haven’t been fully trained in what’s going on … Many of my fellow families also had the same call, and we were all very confused by it because it didn’t actually offer any help.”

The Dfat deputy secretary, Tony Sheehan, told the same hearing the calls seek a “clear and timely understanding of people’s circumstances and intentions” so the department could “target our assistance to those most in need”.

Of the 5,500 who had received calls fewer than 20% had said they don’t wish to come home this year and “very few” said they wished to be removed from the list.

“Dfat will continue to work with agency partners to assist the return of as many Australians as possible, both before Christmas and continuing through the new year and into 2021,” Sheehan said.

On Sunday Hartley told ABC TV that while the government argues Australians have had nine months to return home, she could “throw the same logic back at the government that you have had nine months now to come up with a better solution and come up with a way to get Australians home”.

“Find a solution. It’s ridiculous. Australia is the only country in the world that is doing this, keep blocking their citizens from returning.”

Australia has struggled with the number of returning citizens and permanent residents since national cabinet capped arrivals to Australia in July in response to the second coronavirus wave in Victoria and suspension of hotel quarantine in Melbourne.

The federal government has secured 500 quarantine places per fortnight at Howard Springs in the Northern Territory and is in advanced negotiations for a further 500 spots.

The Australian Human Rights Commission has warned Australia’s travel cap may breach international law obligations regarding reunifying children with their families and allowing citizens to travel home.

Hafta Ichi
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Stranded Australians are being reclassified to avoid embarrassing PM, Labor says | Australian politics

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