The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, with the help of Services Australia, has been hitting the phones in recent months in a bid to update the status of Australians overseas.
But some Australians who have been called by government officials said after their conversation they logged into their DFAT online account to find their status had been updated to “I am not seeking to return to Australia at this time”.
DFAT’s website advises Australians to not register if “you’re currently overseas but aren’t planning to return just yet” or “you don’t need help returning”.
Laura Hartley, who is in Spain with her partner and daughter, registered with DFAT as wanting to return home in September.
Ms Hartley received a phone call late last month from DFAT and told the caller that she had a flight booked home to Australia for her family on January 18.
Last week she logged onto her DFAT account to find she was listed as not seeking to return to Australia.
“The alternative status to ‘I not am not seeking to return at this time’ was ‘I am seeking to return in the next 2 months,’ which is when our flight is,” Ms Hartley told The Sunday Age and The Sun-Herald.
“I can’t shake the feeling that the call and subsequent reclassifications on the DFAT portal are a cynical drive to deliver the government a Christmas miracle.”
When she checked her DFAT status on Saturday, it had been changed again to a newly created status: “I am seeking to return to Australia in 2020”.
Australians have taken to a Facebook page called “Australians Stuck Around the World” to voice their frustration at having their details changed after receiving phone calls from DFAT.
“I only checked because of someone else’s post, otherwise, I wouldn’t have known we were taken off the list also!” one Australian commented.
“I don’t know if they’re doing that to show the numbers aren’t as bad as reported or if there’s some other motivation but we’re definitely still trying to get home!!”
A spokeswoman for DFAT said it did “not take anyone off its lists of registered Australians overseas unless they ask to be taken off, or have successfully returned to Australia”.
“We contact registered Australians to ensure we have a clear understanding of their current circumstances and intentions,” the DFAT spokeswoman said.
“We know that people’s intentions change, depending on where they are and their personal or family situation. This is one of the reasons the number of registered Australians overseas is constantly changing.”
Opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong said “it looks like the Morrison Government is cooking the books here”.
“Is this a sneaky way of trying to make the numbers look better, when the reality is the number of Australians stranded overseas has been going up and up for months?” Senator Wong said.
“If only public servants were directed to help stranded Aussies get home by Christmas – as their Prime Minister promised – rather than carrying out a dodgy survey.”
As of late last month, DFAT has registered 36,875 Australians overseas as seeking to return home.
At least 8070 Australians were considered vulnerable by the government, up from about 4000 in September.
Qantas is in December flying to a number of COVID-19 hotspots across Europe to help bring stranded Australians home.
Anthony is foreign affairs and national security correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.