A little more than half the 26,700 Australians stranded overseas in September who Scott Morrison suggested could come home by Christmas have returned to Australia.
Despite the prime minister boasting on Thursday that 35,000 Australians have returned home since September, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade officials revealed that just 14,000 of those were registered with the department.
That means of the original cohort who had registered by 18 September, more than 12,000 Australians are yet to return home.
Dfat officials told the Covid-19 Senate committee on Thursday the number of Australians now registered to return has grown to 36,875 including 8,070 people classed as vulnerable, a number that has doubled since September.
The inquiry heard evidence from Australians overseas who said they felt “betrayed and abandoned”, accusing Morrison of misrepresenting Australia’s arrivals policy and airlines of preying on them by continuing to sell tickets to the highest bidder and cancelling flights.
Australia has struggled with the number of returning citizens and permanent residents since national cabinet capped arrivals to Australia in July in response to the second coronavirus wave in Victoria and suspension of hotel quarantine in Melbourne.
On 18 September, the cap was raised to 6,000 per week and Morrison said he would “hope that those who are looking to come home, that we’d be able to do that within months and I would hope that we can get as many people home, if not all of them by Christmas”.
On Thursday, Morrison told reporters from quarantine at his home, the Lodge in Canberra, that his guidance of home by Christmas applied to “the caseload that we had back in September”.
“We already have got 35,000 home. So we are well on track to deal with the scale of demand that we had at the time,” he said.
“In fact, we have exceeded it in many respects with the number of people that have come back.”
Officials from Dfat and the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet revealed that of the 35,000 who have returned home since mid-September, just 14,000 were registered with Dfat.
Labor’s shadow home affairs minister, Kristina Keneally, said while Morrison had “blithely asserted” the government had exceeded the 26,700 wanting to return “that is not true”.
The Dfat deputy secretary, Tony Sheehan, defended the government’s record, arguing the other Australians counted in the 35,000 figure “needed to come home as well”.
Earlier in November, Morrison revealed national cabinet had decided against using alternatives to hotel quarantine because they were deemed unsafe, but promised to pursue an “Australians first” approach to arrivals in Australia.
The health minister, Greg Hunt, later said the commitment applied only to stopping international students returning, while exemptions for foreign business people and investors would continue to apply.
At the hearing, the Australian Border Force assistant commissioner, Kylie Rendina, said that 89% of people entering Australia were citizens, permanent residents or automatically-approved family members.
The remaining 11% received “discretionary exemptions” because they had critical skills, were here on compassionate grounds or for national interest reasons.
Although Australia was prioritising Australians in government-facilitated commercial flights, most arrivals occur through normal flights in which airlines make a “commercial decision” about who to allow in, she said.
Earlier, Dave Jeffries told the inquiry his family had gone to Canada in February to care for his mother, who has cancer, and was left stranded when their return flight in late March was cancelled.
Jeffries accused airlines of “preying on Australians” by charging them for flights that won’t run, then taking months to process refunds.
Australians had been targeted by social media comments blaming them for remaining overseas, with some more extreme examples even wishing they would contract Covid, he said.
Jeffries said he hoped to raise his son to be more truthful than Morrison, taking a swipe at the prime minister for claiming to pursue an “Australians first” policy when “there is no queue to reserve our spot in hotel quarantine” and 31,000 non-citizens have arrived in the last six months.
“We are the only country in the world effectively denying their citizens the right to return to their country – it’s unacceptable and about as unAustralian as it gets.”
The Australian Human Rights Commission has warned Australia’s travel cap may breach international law obligations regarding reunifying children with their families and allowing citizens to travel home.
The acting chief medical officer, Paul Kelly, said the cap was the response to a “difficult policy conundrum” of wanting to protect Australians at home from the pandemic while allowing others to return home.
The Liberal senator James Paterson deflected blame to Labor state governments by noting that Western Australia’s state cap had contributed to the Jeffries’ woes, and Australia’s overall capacity would have been higher if not for the failures of hotel quarantine in Victoria.
Officials said that between now and Christmas there were roughly 29,000 seats on commercial flights linked to a place in hotel quarantine, and a further 3,000 might come home using “surge capacity” from government-facilitated flights into Tasmania, the Northern Territory and the ACT.
Keneally said Morrison had “promised he would get stranded Australians home by Christmas, but it’s clear that is not going to happen”.
Caroline Edwards, the health department associate secretary, noted the government had secured 500 places per fortnight at Howard Springs and had “very advanced negotiations” for a further 500 spots.