Stranded far from home: six months on, these tourists are still stuck in Melbourne

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As more than 100 homebound, desperate Australians boarded a rescue flight at London’s Heathrow airport on Thursday in Melbourne the de Torres family from Colombia prepared for another day of purgatory on their "holiday", six months-long and counting.

"It’s a little difficult," says Clara Torres from her nephew's two-bedroom Caulfield apartment where she, her sister Amparo and 90-year old mother Ines have slept on mattresses on the floor of the spare room for half a year.

Amparo Torres (left)- with sister Clara (right) and mother Ines de Torres (centre)- came to visit her son John Sanchez and his partner Carla Peixoto in February. They have been stuck living together in Caulfield since the pandemic began.Credit:Chris Hopkins

Each day is much the same for the three – breakfast, a bit of exercise, read, call the family in Colombia – followed by a COVID-safe walk to the park and home again to her nephew John and his partner Carla's apartment.

The Colombian trio saved up for the trip of a lifetime to visit their nephew after he moved to Australia 10 years ago. They arrived in Melbourne at the start of February for what was meant to be a two-month stay.

But in mid-March, with escalating coronavirus case numbers worldwide, Colombia shut its borders with no warning, and the Torres family's return tickets were cancelled.

International flights into Colombia didn't resume until September 21, but LATAM airlines is still not operating flights in or out of Australia.

"When our ticket was cancelled [we] were a little shocked," Ms Torres said. "But when they cancelled, we did not assume it [was] going to be this long".

The Torres family are among thousands of stranded holidaymakers in the country. According to the Department of Home Affairs, there are more than 82,000 visitor visa holders still in Australia. Among those, more than 3000 have applied for the government's "pandemic event" visa which allows people to stay after their visas expire.

There have been a handful of humanitarian flights sent to Australia to pick up citizens from different countries, but for the trio the cost was prohibitive.

"Each flight had a different cost, the cheapest was $3000 per person, but with additional costs it was more like $4500 per person," said Carla Peixoto, who has been hosting her partner's family.

“They’ve only got about $2000 [in savings] left and so they’ve not even got enough for one ticket."

Ms Peixoto said the many months of working from home, uncertainty and close quarters living with her partner's family had been "very stressful mentally and emotionally".

"It's been a very big learning curve, especially with the lockdown" she said.

The Torres family say their only hope of returning home is to wait for LATAM flights to resume so they can use their pre-paid ticket.

Clara and sister Sanparo work in the middle of the night to try to keep their real estate business afloat back home, but they say their income does not count for much when converted to Australian dollars. It is not enough to pay for a new ticket home, or a complicated trip through various countries and quarantine programs.

"[People think] maybe you have a lot of money to come to Australia but no one one knows the number of sacifirices we made to come here," Clara said.

The Colombian embassy has issued the family two supermarket vouchers throughout the six months to assist with grocery bills, but there's been little other support from their home country.

A Department of Home Affairs spokesperson said the government had allocated $7 million in funding to Red Cross to provide emergency relief to temporary visa holders.

"Temporary visa holders are also able to access relief services from other community organisations, receiving a total of $200 million in new funding," they said.

Until flights resume, Clara said the trio were trying to stay positive and make the best of their bizarre situation.

"It was about two and a half months before I decided to be calm," she said. "Don’t think too much, that’s the clue, because you don’t know what is going to happen."

"Melbourne is a beautiful city. When I come back to Colombia I will have many stories to tell my family."

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