DFAT accidentally reveals email addresses of stranded Australians

The email addresses of more than 1,000 vulnerable Australians stranded abroad have been accidentally disclosed by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

The email sent by the ministry on Wednesday contained information about a new loan program. Announced last month, the program allows “only the most vulnerable Australian citizens” stranded abroad to take out small loans to cover temporary accommodation, daily living expenses and tickets for commercial flights.

According to ABC News, 1021 email addresses were copied into the DFAT message, revealing the addresses to each recipient.

Realizing its mistake, the ministry contacted the recipients asking them to delete the original email “to protect the privacy of those affected”. He also posted a statement on Twitter.

“We apologize for unintentionally disclosing the email addresses of stranded Australians who we are trying to help return home. No other personal information was disclosed. We want to get you home and are working as hard as possible to do so, ”DFAT wrote.

More than 25,000 Australians are currently stranded abroad. During recent hearing of the Senate special committee, several people have shared their experiences trying to return to Australia from abroad during the pandemic.

One witness was Deanne Vowels, who has been stuck in the UK for six months and requested DFAT help during that time.

Vowels said her family were initially offered repatriation flights to return home in June at a cost of $ 10,000 each, for a total of $ 70,000 for the family. She described to the investigation how a DFAT consulate in the UK suggested that Vowels set up a GoFundMe page and ask friends and family for financial help to return home.

The family were also told they could wait for a flight in August, which would allow them to use the original tickets they had already purchased, but those flights were canceled. The family is currently due to return home in November.

Vowels has called on the government to lift the cap on international arrivals to Australia, which was recently increased from 4,000 to 6,000 per week.

“If you can get high paying actors and politicians, international cricketers and students and even lobsters inside and outside Australia, you can surely bring back some hard working Australians who work well, ”she said.

Read more: Over 80% of DFAT staff supported COVID-19 response effort

Another witness named Peta explained to the investigation that her husband and mother are stuck in Serbia. Peta’s stepfather died in May and her husband Luke was granted a humanitarian exemption to travel to help his mother return to Australia. They were due to return home on August 14, Peta said.

“Their fourth rescheduled flights, now landing in Brisbane, were changed again last Friday – not to one flight, but to two flights. They split my mother-in-law, who is now coming home on October 6, and my husband, who will follow nine days later – if they take these flights, ”she said.

“My mother-in-law is really shy. She is 79 years old, she struggles with the English language, she is vulnerable and she is in mourning. She is faced with navigating airports, transit, quarantine in hotels, taxis to come back to me alone in Melbourne. It’s total madness.

Peta said that although she had “spent hours and hours on the phone” trying to get help from the government, the Australian Embassy in Serbia offered Luke and his mother “no support. “. She expressed concern about the future security of her family’s home, as well as the health of her mother-in-law as European winter approaches, especially during COVID-19.

“My mother-in-law would not be living with the coronavirus. My husband will not have access to medical care because it will not be covered by his insurance policy for pandemics. They have to go home urgently, ”she said.

During questioning, DFAT Secretary Frances Adamson told the inquest that the hardship program and grant funding can be used to help families like Vowels’, “where there is a gap with the economic cost of the flight “. She said there was no limit on the funding DFAT can provide for these purposes.

“Whatever the need, we can help people bridge this gap. We’re also trying to help people get on the plane, but there is a limit to what we can do at this time until more quarantine places open up. But we are absolutely ready to take advantage of every place, if we can, ”she said.

DFAT chief financial officer Murali Venugopal told the investigation that a total of $ 470,847 in grants was paid to Australians stranded between September 2 and September 23. Between July 1 and September 23, the DFAT granted 220 loans with a total value of $ 330,516, Venugopal mentioned. Of these, 130 loans totaling $ 299,769 have been directly linked to COVID-19.

As of September 23, DFAT had received approximately 825 requests for emergency assistance under the hardship program.

Read more: “We did what we are here for”: Frances Adamson on APS crisis response

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