The number of Australians stranded overseas has soared to 35,700, partly because government efforts to increase quarantine capacity so more people can return home have been outweighed by a surge in exemptions allowing people to leave the country.
Adding to their worries, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Dfat) has issued a warning that scammers, impersonating consular staff, are contacting Australians stranded overseas and trying to sell them fake tickets for government evacuation flights.
Dfat’s warning was issued on Friday, two weeks after the department was forced to apologise for inadvertently revealing the names and contact details of Australians stranded overseas – the third time it has happened in as many months. It is unclear where the alleged scammers obtained the contact information of the stranded Australians.
The number of Australians stuck overseas deemed to be in a vulnerable situation has more than doubled since the middle of October to 8,500, according to Dfat.
The opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman, Kristina Keneally, told the Guardian the growing figures meant it was unlikely the government could bring all stranded Australians home by Christmas as promised.
The backlog of 35,700 Australians who have registered with Dfat as being overseas and wanting to return home has grown from 34,000 on 28 October. The figure has increased by 1,700 since national cabinet first announced it would move to increase the strict cap on arrivals into Australia in mid-September.
Travelling Australians returned home from around the world in record numbers at the beginning of the pandemic, but arrival caps were subsequently requested by states to ease pressure on their hotel quarantine systems. The caps were introduced then tightened in July to about 4,000 arrivals a week and have since been incrementally increased by different states.
As a result of the caps, airlines had to cancel many tickets booked into Australia, as most flights are limited to carrying about 30 passengers.
While some airlines have halted operations to Australia, others frustrated with the caps have admitted to cancelling tickets in economy and, increasingly, business class so they can prioritise more expensive customers to remain financially viable.
Australia’s current weekly arrival cap is about 5,575, according to a Department of Infrastructure spokesman, with Sydney accepting about 3,000 arrivals while Perth, Brisbane and Adelaide have smaller caps. Melbourne airport is yet to resume international arrivals, but the Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, last week indicated flights from New Zealand would soon be allowed.
Federal government evacuation flights from London and New Delhi to Darwin’s Howard Springs quarantine site allow for about 250 returned travellers a week.
Further capacity increases, including Hobart accepting 450 weekly arrivals, and a further 150 and 140 quarantine spaces agreed to by the Queensland and Western Australian governments respectively, are yet to become active.
In October, some states allowed quarantine-free arrival from New Zealand, freeing up places under existing caps.
But Australian Border Force data shows there has been an increase in the number of Australians granted exemptions to travel internationally, despite a general ban.
The border force granted 28,000 exit exemptions between 15 September and 31 October, compared with 47,000 between March and mid-September
In September the border force commissioner, Michael Outtram, acknowledged the growing number of exit exemptions his agency granted “just adds to the situation” of Australians stranded overseas.
Responding to the latest figures, Keneally said Australians “wanting to come home to safety and to enjoy Christmas with their families … have been abandoned by this Liberal government”.
Keneally said she was especially concerned for Australians stranded in European countries re-entering lockdowns where Covid-19 was resurgent.
“Scott Morrison announced he would increase the number of international arrivals into Australia but stranded Australian numbers simply grow,” she said. Keneally called on the government to schedule more repatriation flights and to help states provide more quarantine spots.
The prime minister said in mid-September: “I would hope that those who are looking to come home, that we’d be able to do that within months. And I would hope that we can get as many people home, if not all of them, by Christmas.”
Pieter den Heten, who founded the website removethecap.com while he was stuck in Amsterdam for more than six months, said he knew of some Australians “becoming bankrupt” after having been stuck in a foreign country for most of 2020.
Den Heten, who has since returned to Sydney, said: “The fact they are giving more exit exemptions out is making this situation much worse.
“It’s already like the Hunger Games to get a ticket back home. You have to run as fast and pay as much as you can.”
Den Heten previously addressed the Senate select committee on Covid-19 when he was still in Amsterdam, telling senators he believed most Australians stranded overseas would accept wearing tracking bracelets if it allowed them to return to Australia and quarantine in their home.
The foreign minister, Marise Payne, has been contacted for comment.