Last Thursday Andrew Leslie, 52, woke up at 4.30am BST at his home in east London for his mother’s funeral. It was about 10,000 miles away in Sydney, Australia.
Australia’s strict coronavirus rules have left Andrew, an IT worker, unable to catch a return flight on time. He had no choice but to say “surreal” goodbye to his beloved 92-year-old mum, Helen, via an online live stream.
“I really can’t describe the sadness and grief that I felt over the past few weeks, we always thought we were only 24 hours from home,” says Andrew.
When his mother was taken to hospital after falling four weeks ago, Andrew and his wife, Anu, 49, searched for flights to Australia, only to find that when they could fly there and complete the mandatory two-week quarantine in Australia, they would still be “weeks too late” to see her mother.
Heartbroken at being separated from his mother and four siblings in Australia, Andrew and Anu recorded video messages for his sister to show to Helen before her death.
“We told him how much we love and miss him, and we talked about some of the good memories we had together,” he says.
After a “very moving” funeral, Andrew still finds it difficult to accept his mother’s death. “I don’t know if we really handled it from here, it seems too detached.”
Andrew’s experience is one of thousands of stories of heartache, anger and separation – after Australia passed some of the world’s toughest travel restrictions.
In March, his government urged Australian citizens and residents living abroad who wanted to return home to do so as soon as they could.
Days later, the country closed its borders to everyone except Australian citizens and permanent residents.
The government has banned people from leaving the country without exemptions, and few are granted. All arrivals to Australia must be quarantined at a designated hotel for 14 days, at an approximate cost of approximately USD 3,000 (£ 1,650) per adult.
Australia has also imposed strict limits on the number of arrivals allowed to enter the country – with a cap of around 4,000 people per week. And airlines – which must adhere to the caps – regularly cancel flights and tickets.
About 27,000 Australians stranded abroad have registered with the government to return home, Australian officials said. But earlier this month, Australia’s Airlines Representatives Council – which represents the airlines – estimated there would likely be 100,000 Australians stranded abroad, including 30,000 in the UK.
‘I was told to find a homeless shelter’
For Sandi James, a doctoral researcher, psychologist and qualified teacher, what was supposed to be a 10-day work trip to Dublin has turned into a deadlock month in the UK without a job or stable accommodation.
Sandi, 51, traveled from Australia to a conference in Dublin in March, where his wife Jennifer, 54, joined her from Thailand.
Sandi was then due to travel to Malaysia for work – but says hours before she could board the plane the country closed its borders. Thailand did the same that month.
Sandi traveled to London after being offered a room while awaiting her return to Australia. She tried to book a return flight in April, but the earliest she could get one was July 6.
Without a job or permanent housing, she called the Australian High Commission in London for help, but told her they told her to contact a local council about housing for the homeless. “I hung up the phone. I just couldn’t speak. I wanted to yell at them.
The Commission did not respond to the BBC’s request to respond to this claim.
After her first flight was canceled, Sandi was unable to catch another last minute flight and says she “gave up” on trying to get back to Australia.
Sandi, who is currently staying at a youth hostel in Bristol, says the whole ordeal has severely damaged his mental health. She has now started the expensive process of applying for an ancestry visa in the UK, with the aim of getting work, and I hope to bring Jennifer here.
“I’m stuck here alone, and I’m having a hard time. I can’t do this on my own anymore, I need her.
For first time mom Carly McCrossin, 38, every day her five month old daughter, Ailish, grows up is a heartbreaking reminder that her family in Australia is missing out on these special moments.
“I was so upset, because I was going to put away her newborn clothes,” she says, “and take out the three-month-old clothes”.
Her mother was due to travel to the UK before Carly gave birth. But in a ‘horrific’ phone call, Carly and her husband, who live in south London, agreed that she shouldn’t come to the UK, fearing they might find themselves stranded here – a decision that they only had a few hours to take before the borders closed.
Unable to “do nothing”, she launched a new campaign, with the aim of chartering a plane to fly other babies confined to Australia to meet their families.
With 400 families registered to date, Carly has started the “slow process of getting things done,” including speaking to airlines and charter companies. The cheapest private hire quote so far has been around € 900,000 (£ 497,000) for a return.
The Australian government is due to review the caps for people entering the country on October 24 and recently said it would increase capacity to around 6,000 people per week. But many stranded Australians say it is not enough.
And it might be too late for Carly. She had planned to return home with Ailish in October for three months before returning to the UK in January.
Instead, she went in search of baby clothes that no longer fit her daughter. “I kept asking myself, how did my mother not see my baby?” “