An Australian man who has been stranded in Thailand for 10 months claims he has been abandoned by the federal government after it cancelled his ticket on a flight home this week and cut him off from further financial support.
Justin Peck, 41, originally from Melbourne, left his business job in Hong Kong in early 2020 and travelled to Bangkok for what should have been a short holiday.
When the pandemic struck and Thailand closed its borders in March, Mr Peck had no job and no way to get home.
He said the government had arranged more than a dozen flights home for him since March – at a cost of up to $60,000 – all of which have fallen through. He feels his chances of returning home are now even slimmer, after the government this week removed him from its waiting list for government-assisted return flights.
Mr Peck is living off the meagre salary of his local girlfriend after running out of his savings and superannuation.
The last straw for Mr Peck came last week after he was told that his ticket for his 12th scheduled flight home had been cancelled by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade after it said he broke the terms and conditions of the repatriation program by contacting the airline directly.
Mr Peck was originally booked to fly into Brisbane via Singapore on January 8, just as the Queensland government announced a three-day hard lockdown for greater Brisbane over fears a highly contagious virus could have been spreading in the community.
He had missed a previous flight on Christmas Day after he was told at the boarding gate that due to a change in Australian hotel quarantine numbers he would be stuck in Singapore.
Fearing the Brisbane lockdown might result in a sudden cap on flights, leaving him stranded in Singapore at great expense, Mr Peck frantically tried to contact DFAT to see if he could rebook his flight.
With no response from the department about the Brisbane lockdown, Mr Peck contacted Singapore Airlines directly, which helped him rebook for January 20.
Mr Peck last week made the discovery that a staff member from DFAT had cancelled his latest ticket. When he contacted the department to ask why, he was told he had breached terms and conditions by contacting the airline directly.
“I know for a fact that Singapore Airlines allow for rebooking and they [DFAT] said: ‘No, you’ve lost it [his spot]’,” Mr Peck said.
Mr Peck said he had since been told by DFAT that he was no longer eligible for financial assistance for an air ticket home, and had been removed from waiting lists for assisted flights.
“I know they’re busy, I know they’re stressed – they’re going through a lot themselves – but something has to be done,” he said.
In addition to supporting him, Mr Peck’s girlfriend, Kae, is also helping her brother, who lost his job due to the pandemic, and her ageing parents in rural Thailand – all on the meagre salary of about $1000 a month.
“I’m lucky, if I didn’t have her I don’t know what I would have done,” he said.
DFAT issued Mr Peck a one-off $2000 loan for living expenses in September, which he says lasted about three months, and will need to be repaid once he returns to Australia.
The department said it has expanded its financial assistance program for “the most vulnerable Australian citizens overseas”, but correspondence from DFAT to Mr Peck shows he is no longer eligible for assistance.
It’s a point he said he couldn’t reconcile with the amount of money that had been spent by the government on business class airfares to bring him home, all of which have ended up being cancelled.
“On average $5000 per ticket and 12 flights, that’s $60,000. I could have bought a townhouse in Thailand for that – a condominium with a pool,” he laughed.
Mr Peck estimates that he has applied for more 1000 jobs in Thailand, including 100 this month alone, but hasn’t had one call back.
“Everyone wants to hire local [in Thailand] and that’s understandable,” he said.”[And] as I’m not in Australia [there’s] no interest until I arrive back.”
Mr Peck said his mental health had deteriorated as his future remained so uncertain.
“I don’t expect anything anymore, I gave up a long time ago,” he said. “I’ve pulled out chunks of my hair because I’m that stressed, I’ve been to the hospital to get medications to calm down.”
“I wake up every night at 1am, 2am, 3am, 4am, 5am… because it does get to you.”
DFAT did not respond to questions about Mr Peck’s specific case, citing privacy obligations.
The department said there were 38,100 people registered with the government who were still seeking assistance to return to Australia from overseas.
A spokesperson said it had helped more than 38,800 Australians fly home in the past year, including around 12,600 people on 91 government-facilitated flights.
By : Rachael Dexter – THE AGE