The Association of Bhutanese in Perth Inc. (ABPI) has collected a list of more than 140 Bhutanese living in Perth, Australia seeking to return home. A member of ABPI said no survey has been carried out to find the specific reason for them wanting to return home.
However, the member pointed out that most of the Bhutanese in Perth are worried about the uncertainty looming over their future due to the coronavirus pandemic. Many Bhutanese students are worried about paying their college tuition fees as there is no way to earn money without jobs.
Inadequate health cover insurance is also causing much insecurity among them. Most of them are not sure if they would be treated in the hospitals as well. As of now, there is no news of any Bhutanese becoming sick due to the coronavirus in Australia.
According to ABPI, 55 percent of the Bhutanese in Perth are students. ABPI has received desperate calls for help from the financially distressed Bhutanese. International students and foreign residents do not receive any government assistance like the citizens and the permanent residents receive in Australia.
“If they fall sick, it would be a big difficulty and the situation for employment doesn’t look good for several months. And without jobs, they will have to pay from their savings and staying back would mean they would be just spending money here. Some who came here very recently may not have the money,” ABPI member said.
Therefore, ABPI has requested the government for a chartered flight, like the Nepalese government did for its nationals, so that there is less chance of the coronavirus spread. ABPI also forwarded a copy of the letter to the Royal Bhutan Embassy in Thailand.
“It looks like many want to defer their studies and come back when everything subsides. Almost all the Bhutanese work in high-risk areas. But those working in hospitality and hotels lost their jobs and rideshare drivers are also not getting jobs and their work is risky as well,” said the ABPI member.
ABPI has requested the government for a direct relief flight from Paro-Perth-Paro, without the need to transit through Bangkok, Thailand.
“Bhutanese living in Australia are aware about the restrictions imposed by the other governments, and that is why we are seeking the government’s intervention in getting us home,” said a student studying in Perth.
Foreign Minister (Dr) Tandi Dorji said the government is seeking approvals from the other governments as many are under lock down with strict travel restrictions in place. Therefore, even if the government wants to help, it cannot due to the travel ban.
Lyonpo Tandi Dorji added that everybody is trying to come back from every corner of the world, and the government is trying to seek travel approvals so once the other government approves, the flights from Bhutan can take off after all the restrictions and lock down are removed.
“We are mindful about the situation and we request Bhutanese to stay where they are until the restrictions and lock down are lifted,” said Lyonpo.
ABPI received a letter from the Royal Bhutanese Embassy in Bangkok on April 1. The letter states that if the Bhutanese do decide to return to home when flight options become available, the Royal Government is ready to extend its support and assistance with information relating to travel including transit requirement, which would be subject to travel restrictions in place.
Those wishing to return will have to draw up their travel plans, buy the tickets and let the embassy know if facilitation is required. The government also helps to coordinate with either Drukair or Bhutan Airlines once flight restrictions are lifted.
The letter also stated that the Royal Government is deeply concerned about the welfare of its citizens abroad and is ensuring their safety and wellbeing through the embassies/missions. It reads, “We are regularly monitoring the situation in Australia and WhatApp group comprising of all the associations in Australia has been created to exchange information.”
The letter also points to how difficult it is to predict how long it will take before things return to normal. The Australian Government has implemented several measures to contain the spread of COVID-19 through health advisories and restrictions.
According to the letter, health minister of Australia, Greg Hunt, reported that there were about 4,400 COVID-19 cases in Australia and indication are that the rate of the growth in new infection is slowing down due to containment measures implemented by the government.
“Recently, it was bought to the attention of the Royal Government that there are 150 Bhutanese wanting to return home from Australia (mainly from Perth) and support from the government had also been requested. While travel to Bhutan would have been easier two weeks ago, the situation has dramatically changed and travel ban has become more difficult due to travel restrictions/ban put in place by most countries,” the letter points out.
The government said there are risks of exposure and being infected while traveling. Therefore, it is advised not to make home travel plans, but the choice to return to home is entirely up to the individual.
“Transit through Thailand, Singapore, Hong Kong, India, Nepal and Bangladesh are currently not possible as the airports are either closed or have put restrictions/travel ban for foreigners entering or transiting through countries. There is also a travel ban for foreigners for entry into Australia,” the letter further reads, and adds that there is no specific timeline to the ban as it could extend to the time when COVID-19 situation is addressed not only in Australia but across the globe.
“Therefore, this may need to be considered if someone is planning to travel home for the time being and thinking of returning to Australia later,” the letter states.
The Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison had initially said that it was ‘time to leave’ for foreign students and that the Australian Government could not give them any help.
This part prompted the Bhutanese exodus.
However, he came under strong criticism and so on 5th April his government announced that those foreign students who have been longer than a year in Austrlia can apply for financial assistance, if they need it.