FREMANTLE, Australia – It was pub choir night on a recent evening at a watering hole in the Western Australian port city of Fremantle. Nobody was masked. The choir leader urged people to cram in tighter for better sound. Drinks in hand, dozens of patrons launched into an Australian classic, "You'd better be home soon."
But getting home to Australia seems like an impossible dream for many right now. The government's measures to prevent COVID from spreading — throwing up hard borders that keep out citizens and foreigners alike — has come at a steep price to children and those in lower-income brackets.
Currently, the number of Australians who can enter the country each week is limited to just over 6,300. And all arrivals must quarantine in a hotel or a federally run facility for 14 days. More than 35,000 Australians are registered with authorities as wanting to return, according to a spokesperson from Australia's department of foreign affairs and trade. As for foreigners, most aren't allowed in at all.
"These measures have worked," says Sophie McNeill, an Australian researcher for Human Rights Watch, adding that, "We've lived relatively normal lives." The country has had fewer than 1,000 deaths from just over 30,000 cases in a population of 25 million. That's despite what some have argued has been a sluggish vaccine rollout: fewer than a third of all citizens have received at least one COVID jab compared to over half of all Americans.
In recent weeks, Australia has faced its toughest challenge yet to its COVID policies: the highly contagious Delta variant, which originated in India. Local media reported on June 16 that a driver transporting an international flight crew caught the variant. Since then, over 120 cases have been linked to that case in Sydney, Australia's largest city, as well as to cases in other parts of the country. There are now restrictions and snap lockdowns in place across the Australia.
Kids Stranded Abroad
While the Australian government struggles to keep COVID under control, tens of thousands remain stranded abroad. Those trying to come home include approximately 200 Australian children stuck in India without their parents.
Saanvi Naveen was two and a half when her parents took her to Bangalore to meet her extended family in November of 2019 — before the pandemic began.
When it was time to go home to Australia, Saanvi's grandparents begged the girl's father, Naveen Krishnamurthy, to leave her behind so she could get to know her extended family. Krishnamurthy and his wife returned to Australia with the plan that his parents, who had Australian visit visas, would bring Saanvi back on March 25, 2020.
Six days before she was due to travel, on March 19, the Australian government shut its borders.
"That has turned into almost 18 months now," Krishnamurthy says.
Krishnamurthy says he then applied to the government to allow his parents to escort Saanvi home. It was denied. He and his wife applied to leave Australia to bring their daughter home. That was also denied via an automated email response. NPR contacted Australia's department of foreign affairs, which handles these cases, about Krishnamurthy's situation, but received no response.
Krishnamurthy says the government told him Saanvi can fly home if he can find a fellow passenger to care for his daughter.
Those kinds of arrangements are not coordinated by the Australian government but largely through volunteer Neha Sandhu on a Facebook group called Australians Stuck in India.
Sandhu, a dental assistant in the northern city of Brisbane, was one of the Australian citizens stranded in India. She became active on Facebook groups to figure out how to get home. Now that she's made it back to Brisbane, she's helping fellow stranded Australians via a WhatsApp group for around 400 parents whose children are stuck abroad. Much of her work is pairing up the children with adults flying home from India who volunteer to escort one of the children on the trip.
But Krishnamurthy isn't okay with sending his now 3-year-old daughter home with a stranger. "It's totally ridiculous to expect someone to accept this [as our best option]," he says. "She's not a parcel, she's a person."
For now, his daughter Saanvi is staying put with her grandparents, but Krishnamurthy says she is not handling the separation well. "She's showing signs of depression. She can't communicate. Her [emotional] growth is stunted," he says.
Another Australian citizen, Poornima Peri, faces a similar plight. Her 4-year-old son, Aarit, is stranded in India, living with her mother since February. After the pandemic lockdowns began she was unable to go and bring him back. And now, she says, she won't send him home to Melbourne with a stranger either. Aarit is too small, she says, so "definitely no."
Peri says these days have been difficult for her, and she hopes the government will make it easier for parents to pick up their children from India.
"My eyes get filled up with water. I am so doubtful I will be able to touch, hug him, kiss him. These years will never return."
In June, the government finally announced parents could apply to fly to India to pick up their children or allow an extended family member to escort a child. But parents and their advocates, like Sandhu, say the process is still confusing and expensive.
For example, she says all Australians leaving India must quarantine for three days in a hotel in the capital, New Delhi. That means the volunteer adults escorting children must quarantine with the children beforehand. Sandhu argues that is too much to ask of a volunteer after they have already agreed to escort the child on the plane trip.
While the quarantine upon arrival in Australia is mostly done in hotels, that's not always the case. Certain children end up in Australia's federal quarantine facility, called Howard Springs, in the north; their parents are not allowed to join them until the quarantine is complete.
Sandhu says that policy makes it seem like those working at Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs are robots, not humans.
"It's a simple understanding," says Sandhu as to why parents need to be with their child in quarantine.
To Get Home You Need A Whole Lot Of Cash
Then there are those who can't afford to get home. After the government announced a curb on arrivals, the airlines sharply increased ticket prices to make up for the difference in lost sales on empty seats.
That comes alongside the price of quarantining in a hotel – which begins at $2,300 USD.
Many of those who want to return say they've already spent large chunks of their savings on a plane ticket home. Jenelle Astner, a 53-year-old Australian who has lived in Germany for the past three decades, spent thousands of dollars trying to reunite her grown children and see her 90-year-old mother. Many of the tickets she purchased were ultimately cancelled.
Cancellations are common, partly because the government can announce sudden reductions in the number of arrivals allowed to enter on a given week — usually after COVID cases leak out of quarantine into the community.
To ensure her passage home, Astner recently spent $12,000 USD on a first-class ticket. That's all her savings.
It took her a week to make that decision, she says. "I got over the fact of spending all that money. I can't wait to see my kids and my mum."
Robyn Murray, a 68-year-old Australian woman living in Egypt and married to a polygamous man, died not long after telling her daughter she wanted to come home but couldn't afford it.
"She had an interesting life over there," says her daughter, Selena Murray, a 43-year-old florist who lives in the coastal town of Byron Bay. When the pandemic first hit, Murray says her mother decided to stay put, as did tens of thousands of other Australians living abroad.
But late last year, Murray's mother suffered a stroke and started to worry about staying in Cairo as her health declined. Murray encouraged her to return to Australia to be with her.
"I told her, 'Look if you need to come home, you can come and live with us.' She said yes [but] she didn't have the money." Neither did Murray.
In February, Murray got a call saying her mother had died in hospital of a heart attack, so she never got to see her.
"If you're loaded," says Murray, "it's fine for you. But yeah – for everyday people, it's really very segregated, and terrible, what's going on."
The government has arranged around 140 low-cost repatriation flights, allowing over 20,000 people to return, according to a spokesman. But seats on those flights sell out in minutes.
Australia 'Failed A Moral Test'
For about two weeks, from April 27 to May 15, it wasn't just expensive to get home, it was banned for the some 10,000 citizens who were in India.
That temporary ban was imposed after large numbers of returnees tested positive for the highly contagious Delta variant.
But the move was met with a backlash from across the political spectrum because it appeared to largely target non-white traveling Australians: those of Indian descent. It even met the ire of one of Australia's most conservative commentators: Andrew Bolt.
"Australia today failed a moral test," Bolt said on his show, which airs on Australia's Sky News, a political cousin to Fox News. He asked, "I wonder if we would be that hard core if we were talking about Australians stuck not in India but England."
That question stung in a country still grappling with its legacy of only allowing white migration until the 1970s.
McNeill, of Human Rights Watch, says the Australian government can impose limitations on citizens returning, but this past year the restrictions have not been "necessary and proportionate."
The government has promised to expand federal quarantine facilities – that would allow more Australians to return and bring down the price of air tickets. But those expansion plans have been sluggish, according to some. A recent poll by the Lowy Institute reported that nearly 60% of Australians felt the government had done enough to help citizens return. And keeping Australia isolated remains politically popular.
The popularity of Australia's hard borders, Krishnamurthy says, shows the Australian government's priorities. "They are more focused on keeping Australia as a zero-case country" — more he says, than bringing home Australian children.