Australians scrambling to find a way home from locked-down Peru say they still don’t know if they will be able to get out of the country and fearthe window for leaving “may slam shut”.
Britons and Canadians have been promised government flights to take them home from Peru, while Israelis and Mexicans have already been evacuated by their governments, but Australians say they are unsure commercial charter flights they have been encouraged by Canberra to book will be allowed to fly.
The foreign minister, Marise Payne, said late on Sunday she had spoken to Peru’s foreign minister, Néstor Popolizio Bardales, “as we try to facilitate departures for our nationals”. Australia’s ambassador said citizens trapped in the country were her “top priority”.
Peru is continuing to tighten its travel restrictions in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, with the government closing all airports and insisting only government-organised flights, flying out of military airbases, will be permitted to leave the country.
Peru’s state of emergency is set to end on 31 March, but there is a widespread expectation it will be extended. It has said it will not facilitate the repatriation of foreign citizens.
More than 300 Australians are stranded in the country, which announced a sudden shutdown of its borders more than a week ago. Most are in the capital, Lima, and the highlands city of Cusco, but others are in remote parts of the country such as the desert oasis Huacachina or the ancient Inca city of Machu Picchu.
The Peruvian government has imposed a nationwide curfew from 8pm to 5am and internal travel is prohibited, except in emergencies or with official permission. Restrictions are enforced by the military and police. Some of the Australians in Peru have serious health issues that will complicate efforts to repatriate them.
Those stranded stressed they had no criticism of the Peruvian government for its actions in trying to stop the spread of the coronavirus, but said they had been frustrated by the limited options, and limited information, presented by the Australian government.
Some have paid more than $5,000 for seats on a flight run by Chimu Adventures, expected to leave later this week, but the Peruvian defence minister said at the weekend that Sunday 23 March would be “the last day that facilities are being given to foreigners to leave and for citizens to return”.
“The president has ordered that as of Sunday all airports and all borders are closed completely,” Walter Martos told Peru’s national TV channel, Canal N.
Tasmanian doctor Amy Neilson, currently in Lima, said Australians were worried they might not be able to leave Peru for weeks, even months.
“The communication from the Peruvian defence minister last night caused consternation among Australians trying to leave Peru via the Chimu flight anticipated this Thursday or Friday.”
She said they urgently needed to hear from Payne.
John Kirkwood, trapped in Cusco with his wife, said the lockdown measures were steadily tightening.
“We are largely locked inside permanently although we can go out one at a time for necessities. There are armed police and military on the streets. The border is closed. The curfew is now 8pm to 5am. Alcohol has been banned and more and more shops and hostels are closing.”
He said even flights beyond the end of the declared state of emergency were uncertain.
“The biggest problem we face is the seeming lack of will, or even interest, of the Australian government to ensure that the necessary diplomatic work is done to expedite this flight and whatever other flights may be required to get Australians home before the situation here worsens. We are concerned that if repatriation does not occur urgently the window of opportunity for leaving may slam shut.
“The other major problem is receiving accurate and reliable information. The embassy here has been closed since before the lockdown. All of the efforts to organise flights have been undertaken privately although there has been some encouragement at least from the ambassador via Twitter.”
Scott Morrison said on Sunday Australians trapped in Peru were a “priority” for the foreign affairs department.
“I am not going to advance to the point of suggesting any particular flights. But obviously we are working to solve that problem.”
Australia’s ambassador to Peru and Bolivia, Diana Nelson, said the trapped Australians were her “top priority”.
We’re working with the Peruvian government on ways to support Australians in Peru. You remain my top priority – the Embassy team continues to focus all of our efforts on the situation. https://t.co/FSKQ1msM43
“We continue to work with the Peruvian government on the necessary permissions for the flight organised by Chimu Adventures and will do so for any future flight options that become available to Australia.”
Chimu Adventures said it had secured aircraft for its flight and that authorisations were “well-progressed” with the Peruvian and Australian governments.
Qantas has said it would be prepared to use some of its grounded planes and stood-down staff to launch repatriation flights, but needed guidance from the government on where Australians who needed rescuing were. Qantas has a hub in Santiago in Chile.