Technology

Thousands of stranded Aussies map their stories on ‘Remove the Cap’ website

Christian Fleetwood

Christian Fleetwood

The stories from travellers and families pleading with the federal government to return to Australia during the coronavirus pandemic are being documented on a new website that shows just how widespread the situation is.

According to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), at least 23,000 Australians have registered with the Commonwealth saying they want to come home.

The Board of Airline Representatives of Australia estimates the real figure is closer to 100,000.

Up to now, the pleas of travellers stranded outside the country have appeared merely as numbers.

But a new website founded by an Australian citizen trapped overseas visually conveys the difficulties and delays Aussies are facing in their attempts to return home.

RemoveTheCap.com was established by Pieter den Heten, a Dutch-Australian stuck couch surfing in Amsterdam without a job, who founded it to show how widespread the issue is in one interactive map.

After launching just two weeks ago, at least 2,144 pins have been added by Australians stranded in countries across the world, alongside their stories, with the number growing daily.

One of these is Barbara, who arrived in Brazil on 1 April to stay with her family because her mother had passed away.

The trip was meant to be for just two months, the time she needed to organise her affairs in Brazil.

Another is Sandi, who arrived in the United Kingdom on 6 March for a conference to present her PhD research. Sandi’s partner went to on to Thailand at the time, and the pair were to meet up in Malaysia late in March.

She is now stuck in London couch surfing and says she is at the stage “where I am waking up every day in tears and crying myself to sleep”.

“I’ve also lost a lot of weight from the stress,” Sandi writes, adding: “All hope of us going back to Australia is gone and I am surviving on the hope that Thailand or Malaysia will allow me entry at some stage this year.”

Following last Friday’s National Cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the states and territories would commit to increasing the current cap on international arrivals, “where possible”, which sits at 4,000 per week.

That announcement followed the establishment of a hardship fund by DFAT to provide emergency hardship loans for Australians left outside the country due to the cap of up to $2,000 for an individual, $3,000 for a family of two, $4,000 for a family of three, and $5,000 for a family of four.

It also came amid the troubling news that airlines had been forced to prioritise customers who pay more for tickets to remain profitable, with planes carrying as few as four passengers.

Heten moved to Germany in September 2019 and was hoping to return to Australia to be with his partner on 1 November, this year, on a Qatar Airways flight.

However, the UX designer revealed in a statement on RemoveTheCap.com that his flight had been changed at the last minute.

“On Sunday 6 September, Qatar [Airways] notified me of a last-minute change to my return flight to Sydney scheduled for early November,” he writes.

“An airline agent informed me I would now leave within 24 hours. Unfortunately, at this short notice, I would be unable to board the flight on time.

“I am still unsure why I was booked at the last minute on a return flight. The cap was – and is – still in place. I will continue to seek a reasonable solution and timeframe for my return flight home. I continue to wholeheartedly desire to be back in Sydney with my partner.

“Importantly, as the founder of Remove the Cap, I want to avoid any (perceived) privileged treatment in organising my return over more pressing cases. My situation is a long-shot from the most pressing cases of Australians in hardship needing to return home.

“With Remove the Cap, I will continue to seek structural change in the Australian travel cap that prevents many citizens from returning home to Australia in a reasonable timeframe.”

RemoveTheCap.com has partnered with another initiative, PassengerCaps.info, which provides information on what the caps mean and how Australians can get help, with the aim being to demonstrate the severity of the issue to Australians back home and gain public support.

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