The email addresses of more than 1000 vulnerable Australians stuck overseas have been accidentally exposed by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
The email sent by the department on Wednesday contained information on a new loans program. Announced last month, the program allows “only the most vulnerable Australian citizens” stranded overseas to take out small loans to cover temporary accommodation, daily living expenses, and tickets for commercial flights.
According to ABC News, 1021 email addresses had been cc’d into DFAT’s message, disclosing the addresses to every recipient.
Realising its mistake, the department contacted the recipients asking them to delete the original email “to protect the privacy of the individuals concerned”. It also released a statement on Twitter.
“We apologise for unintentionally disclosing email addresses of stranded Australians we’re trying to help get home. No other personal information was disclosed. We want to get you home, and are working as hard as we can to do so,” DFAT wrote.
More than 25,000 Australians are currently stranded overseas. During a recent Senate Select Committee hearing, several individuals voiced their experiences with attempting to return to Australia from overseas during the pandemic.
One witness was Deanne Vowels, who has been stuck in the UK for six months and has sought assistance from DFAT during that time.
Vowels said her family was initially offered repatriation flights home in June at a cost of $10,000 each, totalling $70,000 for the family. She described to the inquiry how one DFAT consulate in the UK had suggested Vowels set up a GoFundMe page and ask her friends and family for financial assistance in order to get home.
The family was also told they could wait for a flight in August, which would allow them to use the original tickets they had already purchased, but those flights were cancelled. The family is currently scheduled to travel home in November.
Vowels has called for the government to lift the cap on international arrivals to Australia, which was recently increased from 4000 to 6000 a week.
“If you can get high-paying actors and politicians and cricket players and international students and even lobsters in and out of Australia, surely you can get hard-working, good-working Aussies home,” she said.
Another witness named Peta explained to the inquiry that her husband and his mother are stuck in Serbia. Peta’s father-in-law passed away in May, and her husband, Luke, was granted an exemption on compassionate grounds to travel to help his mother return to Australia. They were due to return home on August 14, Peta said.
“Their fourth rescheduling of flights, now landing in Brisbane, was again changed last Friday — not to one flight, but to two flights. They’ve separated my mother-in-law, who is now coming home on 6 October, and my husband, who is following nine days later — if they get on those flights,” she said.
“My mother-in-law’s really shy. She’s 79, she struggles with the English language, she’s vulnerable and she’s grieving. She faces navigating airports, transit, hotel quarantine, taxis to make her way back to me in Melbourne on her own. It’s complete madness.”
Peta said that while she has “spent hours and hours on the phone” trying to receive government assistance, the Australian embassy in Serbia has offered Luke and his mother “no support”. She expressed concern over her family’s future housing security, as well as her mother-in-law’s health during the approaching European winter, particularly during COVID-19.
“My mother-in-law would not live through the coronavirus. My husband won’t have any access to medical care because it won’t be covered under his insurance policy for pandemics. They urgently need to come home,” she said.
During questioning, DFAT secretary Frances Adamson told the inquiry that the hardship program and grant funding can be used to assist families like Vowels’, “where there is a gap with the economy cost of the flight”. She said there was no limit on the funding that DFAT can provide for those purposes.
“Whatever the need is we can help people bridge that gap. We also try to help people get on flights, but there is a limit to what we can do at the moment until a greater number of quarantine places open up. But we are absolutely at the ready to take advantage of every single place, if we can do that,” she said.
DFAT chief finance officer Murali Venugopal told the inquiry that a total of $470,847 in grants has been paid out to stranded Australians between September 2 and September 23. Between July 1 and September 23, DFAT has provided 220 loans at a total value of $330,516, Venugopal said. Out of those, 130 loans totalling $299,769 have been directly related to COVID-19.
As at September 23, DFAT had received around 825 applications for emergency assistance under the hardship program.