John Morris, his wife Leonie and daughter Ella are among about 35,700 Australians living abroad, and desperate to come home – but they can’t.
Strict quotas and sky-high prices have left the family trapped.
The family-of-three has lived in Hong Kong since John was first employed as a pilot by Cathay Dragon Airways in May, 2001.
On October 21, he was one of more than 8000 employees to lose their jobs, as Cathay Pacific shut down its regional airline unit following a decline in air travel due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Leonie works as a counsellor, while Ella, 17, is completing her final years of schooling.
The family had originally planned to return home in 2022, and – with their daughter’s interests in mind – had settled on a permanent move to Western Australia.
Ella has down syndrome and John said her opportunities were limited in Hong Kong.
With a loss of income, living in one of the most expensive cities in the world, the family have no choice but to return home sooner than expected – the only thing is, they can’t.
Australia’s strict quota on international arrivals has made a journey home feel near impossible.
“There are flights going down empty because the quota system won’t allow the opening up of those seats,” John told 7NEWS.com.au.
“It means that the flights are quite restricted and the tickets that are available are quite prohibitively priced.”
John knows one family who did manage to secure tickets to Perth.
It cost them HKD$200,000 – about A$35,000.
“I don’t blame the airline, they’ve only got 20 seats on a 350-seat aircraft. So how do you fund that?” he said.
“It’s only going to be the people that can afford the tickets that will go.”
In July, national cabinet capped weekly international arrivals at 4000 before raising it to 6000 following unrelenting public pressure.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison was quoted as saying flexibility would remain within these caps to “minimise disruptions to returning Australian citizens and permanent residents”.
While John understands restrictions are necessary to stop the spread of COVID-19, his main frustration is that Hong Kong has recorded relatively low COVID-19 community transmission in recent weeks.
“It’s a little bit frustrating to know that we’re in a position that’s not high risk, and yet we’re still unable to say to our families, well, this is when we can leave Hong Kong,” he said.
“And of course, being in Hong Kong without a job is a very expensive exercise.”
While Australia has reopened its borders to facilitate a one-way travel bubble with New Zealand, John says there is “obviously an opportunity here to look at more flexible options, including a provision, or requirements for testing”.
“Whatever was necessary, we would understand, but given that the risk level seems to be so low, it’s very hard to understand why we’re restricted in the same way as a whole global restriction on travel.”
In October, Hong Kong and Singapore announced plans to create a travel bubble, requiring tourists to take a coronavirus test before departure, and potentially a second test after arrival – something John called on the Australian government to consider.
For now, the family is left with few options and no clear timeline.
As days and weeks pass, the prospect of an “extraordinarily expensive trip home” becomes increasingly likely.
“I have no doubt that if you can find the cash, you’ll be able to get a flight at some point, but you’ve got to pay rent, I would need to keep my daughter in school while I’m here, as well as fund the ticket to get home at whatever time that I can.
“And it only gets more expensive as time goes on.”
A Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Spokesperson told 7NEWS.com.au that its “highest priority” is helping vulnerable Australians overseas.
“We’ve been doing this by providing financial assistance through the Overseas Financial Assistance program, facilitating access to flights to Australia, and by continuing to provide consular assistance to those in need,” it said.
DFAT has arranged a series of commercial repatriation flights to bring Australians back from countries including the UK, India, and South Africa, and said it would continue to “prioritise Australians considered vulnerable”.
“Planning for facilitated flights into other airports continues, subject to agreement from jurisdictions,” it added.
There are currently about 45,400 people registered with DFAT globally – about 35,700 of whom wish to return home.