Australians stuck in South America by travel bans say consular officials have been "hopeless". Image by (AAP Image/Supplied by Ben Butler)

Health

Wash hands, DFAT tells stranded Aussie

2020-03-22 14:40:05

An Australian backpacker stranded in South America amid the coronavirus pandemic says consular officials told him to “wash his hands” when his family reached out for help.

Last week, Melbourne man Ben Butler headed for a four-day hike in Argentina’s stunning Patagonia region. Four days later, he emerged to “complete madness”.

“By the time I walked down the main street all the tourists had their packs on and I was thinking, ‘Oh, what have I missed here. Something has gone down’,” he told AAP on Saturday.

He says he’s had no help from consular officials in navigating that madness.

“I’ve had my dad contacting them, and they’re just saying, ‘Oh, there’s not really anything we can do, make sure he’s washing his hands,” he said.

“They’re hopeless. There’s no point even going to them. I feel totally abandoned.”

The 24-year-old was able to get to a bigger city, Bariloche, but has struggled to find a safe place to stay and fears he could become a target if civil unrest erupts.

He says the perception that foreigners are responsible for the spread of the virus complicates things further, and has resulted in hostels shutting their doors.

“In my mind I was thinking ‘I’ve got my tent, I’m just going to run to the bush’, but obviously that’s not really a solution either,” he said.

It was only through the kindness of a friend of a friend that Mr Butler didn’t end up on the street.

“Six days ago, I was having a great time and now I’m in a crisis in a foreign country, when I don’t even speak the language. It just seems surreal.”

A group of Perth women on a similar trip through South America are in the same boat.

The hostel that Ali and Tess MacGregor were staying in, with friend Ashlee Baker, also kicked them out.

They have found other accommodation in Peru, but say they’re “haemorrhaging” money.

Like Mr Butler, the trio says they are yet to get any real assistance from consular officials.

The only response they’ve received from the embassy is an automated email reply.

“Basically they are saying there’s no plans to repatriate Australians at this stage, which isn’t really what you want to hear when you’re stranded in a foreign country,” 25-year-old Ali MacGregor told AAP on Saturday.

“We’re so stressed, but at least we’re together.”