A BENDIGO couple is urging the federal government to bring Australians stranded overseas - including their daughter and her partner - home.
Emergency department nurse Alexandra Stobaus, 27, and her boyfriend Jackson Callahan, 24, have been stranded in South America for almost a week.
They were supposed to fly back to Australia from Bolivia on March 20, but were not permitted to board their flight.
"Airline staff told us it was because we didn't have clearance to enter Australia," Miss Stobaus said.
They have been trying to find a way home ever since. Meanwhile, COVID-19 restrictions in Bolivia are ramping up.
Junortoun couple Eve Curtis and Allan Stobaus want their daughter and her partner home as soon as possible.
"I think the only way they will get home quickly is with government help to arrange flights and access to transit other countries," Ms Curtis said.
"I know they are working on it but I think things need to be sooner rather than later in case things get a lot worse."
Ms Curtis said her daughter, an ED and resuscitations nurse, was keen to be home and helping as soon as she could.
Though Miss Stobaus is Bendigo-born, she and her partner have been living in Geelong and working in Melbourne for the last couple of years.
Miss Stobaus and Mr Callahan have been in South America since January. They had planned to be there for two-and-a-half months, travelling and volunteering, before heading to Europe to live and work for a year.
They were "pretty sheltered" from news of the spread of coronavirus for at least six weeks after arriving in the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador, as they travelled and volunteered at an animal shelter.
By the time the news caught up with them in earnest, they were in Peru.
"The small amount of news we had heard was in Spanish, and we don't speak Spanish," Miss Stobaus said.
"I asked a few nursing colleagues about it and no-one seemed very concerned.
"Once we started having contact with more travellers we started to hear about the effect coronavirus was actually having around the world."
The couple received an early morning email from Smartraveller, a service run by the Australian government, on March 16 saying Peru was shutting its borders at midnight that day.
"We searched for ways to get out of Peru. There was no flights available but with the help of our hostel staff we found one last bus that would cross the border into Bolivia," Miss Stobaus said
"We thought once we got to Bolivia we would be able to get home."
She said they received a Smartraveller email the next day advising them to come home.
The first thing the couple did after arriving in Bolivia was go to the airport to try and get a flight back to Australia.
March 20 was the date of the first available flight.
"Each day we either went to the airline office or airport requesting an earlier flight," Miss Stobaus said.
"We also rang the consulate multiple times to ensure we would be able to get on our flight. Everyone assured us we would be fine to catch our flight on Friday."
But, the morning of their flight, they were unable to check in.
Miss Stobaus said airline staff delayed the flight as they tried to get in contact with Australian immigration officials, but to no avail.
"They were not able to get in contact to confirm that we could enter Australia... so we couldn't board," she said.
Both Miss Stobaus and her partner are Australian citizens.
"This happened to about five or six other Aussies we could see on the same flight as us," Miss Stobaus said.
She and her boyfriend hired an AirBnB with a couple they met that morning.
"We figured safety in numbers and since we are in quarantine now it's good to have some extra company," Miss Stobaus said.
"We also met a very helpful man at the airport who is from Perth, but works in La Paz. He gave us hand sanitiser face masks and has been in contact multiple time to ensure we are ok.
"He is in the same situation as us - Australia wouldn't let him home either. The difference is he is well set up in Bolivia and can speak Spanish."
When they first arrived, the quarantine restrictions meant one person per family was allowed to leave the house to go to the supermarket or pharmacy between 7am and 12 noon.
"Otherwise we are not allowed out unless it is an emergency," Miss Stobaus said.
The restrictions have since escalated.
"As of tomorrow, we are only allowed outside for food shopping once per week," Miss Stobaus said.
The days they are allowed out have been allocated according to their passport numbers.
Miss Stobaus said they would have to get enough food and water to last the entire week, when they were allowed to go to the shops.
"If we break these rules we can get sent to prison for one to 10 years. Also, Bolivia has extended its border closures for 10 more days," she said.
"Some European countries have organised repatriation flights out. Australia has not organised anything," she said.
She and her partner were repeatedly advised, earlier in the week, to keep trying to get home via commercial means.
"This is impossible, as the borders are closed and no airlines are operating commercial flights in or out of Bolivia at this stage," Miss Stobaus said.
"The Australian government has offered no help. The information they have been giving us has often been too late or incorrect."
The couple was told the government was working hard to identify options to get them home. In the meantime, they ought to listen to local authorities and "keep trying to get home on our own".
Ms Curtis asked for help from Member for Bendigo Lisa Chesters, who said she had been doing everything she could to assist, even though Miss Stobaus and Mr Callahan were not her constituents.
She said she had reached out to foreign affairs minister Marise Payne and shadow foreign affairs minister Penny Wong.
"This issue has already been elevated to the minister's office seeking urgent support," Ms Chesters said.
But it's not just about Miss Stobaus and Mr Callahan. The Australian Embassy in Peru is believed to have been in contact with about 40 Australians in Bolivia.
Ms Chesters said she'd had a number of locals who were stuck overseas contact her office.
"I have written to the Minister for Foreign Affairs to ask for information on how the Government will ensure the safe return of my constituents," she said.
Ms Payne took to Twitter yesterday to assure the "unprecedented numbers of Australians" trying to come home due to the coronavirus pandemic the government and her department were working to support them.
Unprecedented numbers of Australians are trying to return to 🇦🇺 due to the #COVID19 pandemic. If you are amongst them, we know it is a difficult time. The Government and my department @DFAT are working to support you.— Marise Payne (@MarisePayne) March 25, 2020
However, the statement attached to her Tweet warned: "There are many hundreds of thousands of Australians overseas. We will not be able to bring everyone home."
The government urged those who were able to take commercial options to return to do so, and recommended others prepare to stay where they were until restrictions were lifted.
"The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is working around the clock to find options to bring particularly vulnerable Australians home, including those from isolated locations," the statement said.
"We are working directly with airlines and travel companies to identify options.
"Our ability to assist is also constrained by rapidly changing country regulations on borders and movement in a number of countries, and flight availability."
The government told those who might be overseas in the coming weeks Australia's diplomatic missions would do whatever they could to provide regular advice and support.
The federal opposition has been urging the government to follow the lead of other countries with options such as subsidised and assisted departures.
It has also urged the government to expedite the processing visas for immediate family members of Australian citizens who were rushing to return home.
Ms Wong stressed two days ago that the government needed to act, and fast, while airlines were still operating.
She said it appeared many thousands of Australians seeking to follow the government's advice and return home would remain stranded overseas.
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