It’s –33 degrees Celsius in rural British Columbia, Canada, and Ben Richard’s nose hairs, eyelashes and beard have frozen solid.
The 36-year-old is on his way to work at the town’s only shop — The Big Lake Store, in BC’s vast Central Interior. It’s a post office, petrol station, pub and library in one.
He had hoped to be seeing the last of the place five weeks ago, when he registered for a rare Australian government repatriation flight out of Vancouver.
He’d given his boss notice, packed his bags and was preparing to drive seven hours along icy roads to make a flight home at short notice. But the ticket never materialised.
“I never heard back from them, not even a ‘sorry you missed out’,” Ben says.
It’s the second failed flight attempt on his “stranded Aussie CV”, alongside a wild but ultimately futile plan to sail home.
The Adelaide man is one of tens of thousands of Australians around the world struggling to navigate precarious international travel, sky-rocketing ticket prices and changing travel restrictions.
He’s among a growing number of expats who, a year into the pandemic, feel they don’t have the options, money or stamina to continue their battle to come home.
The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAT) says over 40,000 overseas Australians have registered with the government as hoping to return home. This changes often as people’s circumstances change over time.
Most of those stranded Aussies are in India or the United Kingdom. DFAT says more repatriation flights from Europe, the United Kingdom and India are being planned but only the “most vulnerable” will be prioritised. Ben is not high on that list.
He considers himself resilient but says he feels abandoned by his country. He’s been registered with DFAT for six months but says he’s only received one email from them.
Living in a town of 300 people in the middle of winter during the pandemic has been incredibly isolating, he says.
He’s lucky to have a valid visa to work and is thankful his boss is letting him sleep on his couch.
Accommodation in the town is limited and Ben’s putting every dollar of his minimum wage towards his attempts to return to Australia.
His only other home is on wheels — a 1981 GMC Vendura campervan — but it won’t be warm enough for him to move off his boss’s couch until at least April.
Scott Murphy was so close to getting home, he could hear his name being called out for final boarding.
The 34-year-old had driven 10 hours across British Columbia to Calgary International Airport in Alberta.
It was the third time he’d tried to get home in four months, after flights in October and December were cancelled.
He’d said his goodbyes, packed his suitcases and paid $CA315 for the now mandatory COVID-19 PCR test for Australians heading home.
Taking no chances, he arrived at the “eerily quiet” airport three hours before the flight’s departure on January 23rd.
The check-in counter was where his path homeward started to crumble again.
“I’m normally a super happy, stress-free person but this has taken its toll for sure,” he says.
Check-in staff hadn’t been told about the new PCR tests for Australian flights, he says. It took 45 minutes to send off his test results to ensure he’d make the 72-hour window before departing.
Because Scott was travelling through two US cities to get to Sydney, he also had to go through the US Customs and Border Protection before he boarded.
Scott says he was delayed for two hours at the US border after confusion about searching his bags. Officers eventually let him go, but by the time he got to the gate, the flight had already left.
“I was pretty upset, as you can imagine.”
The Dubbo local says he had to go back to the Canadian border and make a case to be let back into the country, despite already overstaying his visa while waiting to go home to Australia. He was given a six-month visitor’s visa and allowed to re-enter Canada.
Scott now lives with friends in Chilliwack, a city outside Vancouver, near the US border. He says he’d be living on the streets if it weren’t for the generosity of his friends.
As in much of the world right now, life in British Columbia is restricted. Many are working from home. Nightclubs and sport events have been shut down, and masks are mandatory in public indoor spaces.
Things are quiet at Vancouver International Airport, too.
It’s one of only four airports in the country allowed to operate international flights. There are no direct flights from Canada to Australia right now, according to the Australian High Commission of Canada. The next advertised direct flight isn’t scheduled to leave for another nine months.
Qantas doesn’t expect its international flights to be back until at least October. There are flights home through the US, or via the Middle East, but flying through connecting countries poses a risk of last-minute changes or cancellations due to changing travel caps and other restrictions.
Scott says he’s now trying to get sponsored to work as an electrician in Canada and intends to become a permanent resident. That means letting his family and friends know he won’t be back anytime soon.
“I’ve given up on going home,” he says.
“It literally feels like Australia doesn’t want me at this point”.
‘Stuck between worlds’
Georgia Sibley knows just how difficult and expensive it is to get home to Australia — she used to be a travel agent.
The 26-year-old lost her job in August and now receives $500 a week in support from the Canadian government. Living in Toronto is expensive, but she says it would cost her and her Canadian boyfriend $40,000 to return to Australia with their two dogs.
Georgia, who is also a Canadian permanent resident, considered going home to Melbourne’s Yarra Valley when Prime Minister Scott Morrison asked Australians to come back last year.
Like many living overseas with a house and job, she considered herself to be set up to ride out the first few months and chose to stay in Canada. But she has questioned her decision ever since.
Parts of Toronto have been under a series of strict “Melbourne-style” lockdowns for about six months.
Georgia says much of the city is closed down with residents under stay-at-home orders.
She feels disconnected living in the city as people grow frustrated with the Canadian government’s response.
Georgia says DFAT recently checked in with her via email for the first time since she registered as an Australian overseas last March. The web form asked if she still wanted to come back to Australia in 2021. The answer is still “yes and no”.
Under the Canadian government’s vaccine rollout, Georgia will receive her first dose by the end of July. She hopes vaccine rollouts around the world might finally end arrival caps and quarantines.
“It doesn’t feel like there’s a right way to go,” she says.
“You sort of have to sit in limbo. We’re stuck between two worlds.”
DFAT did not respond to questions regarding future repatriation from Canada.