A group of 85 Australian expats in Cambodia fear time is fast running out to leave before a state of emergency is declared in the country, saying their pleas for help from the Australian Government have gone unheeded.
- Nearly 100 Australian expats have been unable to leave Cambodia on commercial flights
- They are concerned the local healthcare system will be unable to cope with the pandemic
- The Smart Traveller website warns it may not be possible to help every Australian get home from many parts of the world
Commercial flights from Cambodia bought at exorbitant rates are repeatedly being cancelled — one large family reported losing $10,000 on a cancelled flight before being quoted $63,000 for another.
Flights back to Australia are directed via other countries, but many of them are closing their borders in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Everyone’s quite happy to pay a reasonable price, or a touch above, for the Australian Government to take the initiative and get people out,” said Peter Brady, a former editor of South Australia’s Stock Journal newspaper.
“But the Australian Government is sitting on its hands.”
Peter and Sue Brady say a lot of their fellow expats are scared. (Supplied: Peter Brady)
Mr Brady and his wife, Sue, moved five years ago to Siem Reap, where Ms Brady worked as a teacher and Mr Brady volunteered with a not-for-profit group building a new school.
He said the Aussies Attempting To Leave Cambodia (COVID-19) Facebook group was in contact with the Australian embassy in Phnom Penh but had become increasingly frustrated by the lack of commitment from the Australian Government.
“The Americans, the French, the Germans and Swedes, they’re all getting their people out, and the Brits did a charter flight,” Mr Brady said.
“We’re not all tourists. These are testing times and a lot of expats are getting scared.”
Embassy ‘working with airlines’
Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne said the embassy was providing regular updates to the local Australian community, including through social media.
“The embassy is working with airlines and government authorities to help secure commercial flight options for Australians in Cambodia and other nearby countries to return to Australia.”
Tweet from Australian Ambassador to Cambodia
The Government is prepared to consider supporting Australian airlines on a case-by-case basis to operate non-scheduled commercial services to less central locations to bring citizens home.
However, it has said it would only be done where feasible, where all other commercial options were exhausted and if local authorities permitted it.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has pledged to donate seven months of his salary to the National Committee for Combating COVID-19, and there are rumours he will declare a state of emergency in the country as soon as Friday.
This would close provincial borders, making it harder for expats to travel to international airports.
Facing a ‘brick wall’
Jamie Christopherson runs a volunteer tourism company and an education charity from Cambodia, where he also owns and manages a retreat outside Kampot.
He said he helped establish the Facebook page to find out how many people were trying to leave the country.
Ting Moung (scarecrows) to ward off evil spirits have been erected across Siem Reap in response to COVID-19. (Supplied: Peter Brady)
Within days, 85 Australians had verified they wanted to leave but had not been able to.
“The major concern that exists here is that the healthcare system is not able to cope with this situation,” Mr Christopherson said.
“We have a family of nine in our group — five of which have pre-existing conditions that are dangerous — and a number in their 70s, whose families have contacted me to express their concern.
“We have heard from our embassy, who I believe are doing all they can, but there is a brick wall between them and the Federal Government to actually action anything.”
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Opposition Foreign Affairs spokesperson Senator Penny Wong said the health and security situation was deteriorating in many overseas locations and delays were “putting Australians at risk”.
“Other countries have recognised this is the situation faced by their citizens, which is why other countries have acted with urgency to get their citizens to safety,” she said.
“Australia has two airlines with capacity to help, and we should be enlisting them in the national effort to keep Australians safe at home and overseas.
“I again urge the Australian Government to follow the lead of other countries in providing direct support to help bring stranded Australians home, including through subsidised and assisted departures.”
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Cambodia slow to act
Reports from several South-East Asian newspapers have suggested Cambodian leaders were slow to take the threat of COVID-19 seriously.
Mr Hun refused to restrict transport to and from neighbouring China after Wuhan was locked down by authorities in mid-January; even by that stage, thousands of people had reportedly fled the stricken city for Cambodia.
The Prime Minister visited Beijing in a mark of solidarity at the height of the outbreak in early February, and later allowed the stricken Westerdam cruise ship into the port of Sihanoukville after it was turned away by a growing list of countries.
Tests revealed no COVID-19 infections among the ship’s crew or passengers.
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Hun Sen initially seemed relaxed about the threat of coronavirus. (Supplied: The Phnom Penh Post)
At the end of March, Cambodian authorities announced it had recorded 107 cases of COVID-19, but with limited testing there were fears the actual total was higher.
On its Smart Traveller website, the Australian Government said the scale and complexity of the crisis was greater than anything it had faced before, and it “won’t be possible to help everyone get home from many parts of the world”.
“You may have to wait it out in that country until the border closures are lifted or departure arrangements are made,” it stated.
“Our focus will be on those places where Australians are most vulnerable.”
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