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Aussie expat family stranded in Airbnb for 10 weeks after COVID-19 travel ban

“I came in from Phuket in March just as everything was shutting down. My dad had prostate cancer and he passed away … The silver lining was I got to spend five weeks with him.”

The couple lost thousands of dollars on cancelled flights and have been paying $100 a night to stay in the Airbnb on top of a mortgage on a property they own in Melbourne and a rental in Phuket, where the airport remains closed to international arrivals.

Ms Smith put in a request for permission to fly out of Australia when she found out the Thai government would allow flights into Bangkok to resume in July.

“My brother left Singapore not knowing if he would get back in and he’s stranded here, too, with his wife and nine-month-old baby,” she said.

“He’s hoping to be allowed to go back on compassionate grounds.”

Ms Smith said while her children aged two, four and six, missed their friends in Thailand and had become stir crazy in isolation, they were enjoying spending time with their cousins in Melbourne after social distancing rules were loosened.

COVID-19 restrictions mean that Australian citizens and permanent residents cannot leave the country without an official exemption.

To gain an exemption, travellers must apply ahead of time with Home Affairs and establish grounds such as urgent or unavoidable personal business, a need to travel for medical treatment not available in Australia or compassionate grounds.

Citizens who are “ordinarily resident in a country other than Australia” are also exempt.

Ms Smith is not sure how much she will have to pay to travel back to Phuket, where she has lived for a year, but said “I presume it’s going to be expensive”.

Her wife Elise recently found out that her own father is terminally ill, meaning that if she leaves Australia she is unlikely to see him again.

Further complicating matters is the fact Elise, a doctor, has a fly-in-fly-out job in the remote Northern Territory, where she normally spends three weeks working before flying to Phuket to spend four weeks with her family.

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If they all go back to Phuket, Ms Smith said, “she’s probably not going to be able to work at all”.

The couple is facing the difficult prospect of a period of time spent apart.

“Fly-in, fly-out won’t work, because of the quarantine,” she said.

“I just wish someone could wave a magic wand and tell me what to do … A lot of it will come down to finances.”

Official data shows that it is easier to get permission to enter Australia than to leave, with most applications for an exemption for inbound travel granted while about a quarter of Australians who apply to travel overseas are denied an exemption.

Between February 2 and May 6, 6872 inbound travel requests were allowed and 262 refused. Applications for an exemption to enable outbound travel were granted in 2937 cases and denied in 1065 cases.

The federal government encourages all foreign nationals to return to their home countries.

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