Repatriation for Australians during coronavirus: How DFAT got 22,000 Aussies home

When Auprel McNeill realised her three-year-old son Lukas was trapped in the Philippines, she panicked. The country had just gone into sudden lockdown as the novel coronavirus continued its rapid spread worldwide. Problem was, Mrs McNeill was in Melbourne - 6000 kilometres away from her toddler.

Her husband Ian had taken Lukas to attend a family wedding in February before returning alone in mid-March. Mrs McNeill's father was to bring Lukas home when he visited Australia in early April.

But in those critical few weeks, everything changed and the plan fell apart. The window for Mrs McNeill to be reunited with her son had slammed closed.

"It was like my world went upside down," she says. "I felt horrible."

Video: Bringing Lukas home

However, behind the scenes, the Australian government was hatching an extraordinary plan to help reunite stranded citizens with their families back home. The McNeill family was just one of thousands waiting anxiously as Canberra pulled the strings.

Australia's ambassador in the Philippines Steve Robinson never imagined he would become a travel agent. But with thousands of Australians stuck during the lockdown, the veteran diplomat had no choice.

Since March, Mr Robinson's team at the Australian embassy in Manila has facilitated the return of 2309 Australian citizens and permanent residents on eight international flights. Because of the country's unique geography with 2000 inhabited islands, Mr Robinson's team arranged 29 "sweeper flights" across the three missions to retrieve people from far-flung locations. It took some people 18 hours just to reach a regional airport to board one of these sweeper flights.

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"We had people on buses, on the backs of trucks, on ferries," Mr Robinson says. "There are quite extraordinary stories of people doing outrageous things to get themselves home."

The first flights departed Manila on April 18 with Mr Robinson's 200 embassy staff working past midnight to get the planes in the air. Ten days later, they did it all again before a third mission on Tuesday this week.

"It's been remarkable and we're immensely proud," he says.

Globally, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) has provided direct assistance to help about 22,000 people reach Australian shores, including 6500 cruise passengers. It estimates more than 300,000 have returned home in total since Prime Minister Scott Morrison sounded the alarm.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne said there would be more flights in coming weeks and praised her department for negotiating so many logistical hurdles.

Repatriation flights during COVID-19. Graphic by Monique Westerman for Josh Dye story tra30-DFAT

"Our diplomatic and consular teams have faced a range of highly complex circumstances in providing help to Australians in what has become the largest global consular operation in our recent history," Ms Payne said.

"The Australian consular teams here and overseas have done an exceptional job. I am very grateful and very proud of them."

As countries around the world scrambled to recall their citizens amid a looming travel freeze, Canberra swung into action. At the height of the panic, DFAT says 82 per cent of its staff - some 5000 people - assisted with the rescue mission in some way.

The rescue mission was tailored depending on the location. In some countries, such as India and Peru, consular officials arranged special charter flights to ferry its people home. Some planes were full, others were nearly empty. But in other countries Australians were urged to evacuate on existing commercial flights. Since early April the federal government has also underwritten Qantas and Virgin Australia to fly dozens of planes back from London, Los Angeles, Hong Kong and Auckland over a two-month period.

After a gruelling period working seven days a week for two months, Mr Robinson is looking forward to things slowing down. He doesn't rule out a fourth operation but hopes his days as a travel agent are behind him.

"I've never seen the diplomatic network do this sort of thing before because I don't think we've ever been confronted by a crisis that's been worldwide," he says.

"I've never seen anything like this in my 38 years in government. It has been the most phenomenal effort."

It's an effort appreciated by countless families like the McNeills, because on board the second batch of flights from Manila was little Lukas. Just days before the flight, Mrs McNeill discovered some friends were booked on the flight and they kindly offered to accompany Lukas home.

The plan worked at short notice and mother and son were reunited on April 29, nearly three months after they were separated. The two-week hotel quarantine they shared flew by and Mrs McNeill said she will be forever grateful to the government for bringing her son home.

"Until now I can't believe he's finally here," she says. "It's so overwhelming - I'm just really, really happy."

See also: Record breakers: The unusual airlines flying into Australia due to COVID-19

See also: 13,000 km on a private jet: How the king of Bhutan got an infected tourist home

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