James Cater is fully vaccinated but still can't get back to Australia.
Mr Cater, from the Shoalhaven region south of Sydney, has been trying to get back to Australia since June last year after being stranded in Russia with his fiancèe Anna Merkureva. Despite border changes, travelling home is still several steps away.
Mr Cater is fully vaccinated but has received the Sputnik vaccination, which is the only Covid jab available in Russia. Unfortunately, it isn't approved or recognised in Australia.
For Mr Cater and Ms Merkureva, receiving a jab that is TGA approved means travelling to another country — which includes quarantine and paying for accommodation in between jabs — before being allowed back into Australia.
"Serbia is the only country close to Russia offering WHO and TGA-approved vaccines to foreigners," Mr Cater explained to Yahoo News Australia.
"With our savings almost gone after almost two years of not being able to work or have any support, and with a long and costly journey ahead of us."
Currently, TGA approved or recognised Covid-19 vaccinations in Australia are Comirnaty (Pfizer), Vaxzevria (AstraZeneca), Covisheld (AstraZeneca), Spikevax (Moderna), Janssen-Cilag (Johnson & Johnson) and Coronavac (Sinovac).
Stranded in Russia
Mr Cater explained the Covid-19 pandemic took hold while he was in Russia with Anna, leaving him stranded.
The pair had been living in Hong Kong but decided to go back to Russia over New Year's. Anna had begun the process for her Australian partner visa in 2019 when they reached the time requirement for a de facto relationship.
"We were growing aware of how long it would take for her visa to get approved," Mr Cater explained.
At the time, Mr Cater was living in a small village called Krasnodar, where travel was not being permitted without an exemption. Like many stranded Australians, they decided to just wait it out.
"Eventually, as things started to get back to semi-normalcy in Russia, we returned to Anna's home city of Novosibirsk, where I booked my first flight home in June, 2020 for the next month."
Shortly after, arrival caps were announced, and a series of cancelled flights followed.
"A day before my flight was due to leave I was notified of its cancellation. So I booked again, for August, and the same thing happened. I booked again for October, and it cancelled again."
Australian borders have been closed for over 18 months with the controversial border rules — one of the strictest in the world—in place since March 2020.
The travel bans have separated families both within Australia and all over the world, and left tens of thousands of Aussies stuck overseas, as arrivals were capped and flight prices skyrocketed.
Decided to go home
Things changed for the couple when neither of them were able to work, as they desperately tried to get back to Australia.
"I don't speak much Russian, nor had a driver's licence, I wasn't much help to her staying here," Mr Cater explained.
"It was a difficult decision to make," he admitted. "Especially when it became apparent that returning to Russia or meeting anywhere else would be difficult if her visa wasn't issued in time."
"Unfortunately, because Sputnik is the only available vaccine in Russia, we are still denied a pathway home."
At the moment, the couple's only option is to fly to Serbia and stay there for a month to receive both Covid vaccinations necessary to travel to Australia.
Mr Cater believes the Australian government has done little to help returning residents get home.
"Only a handful of stranded Australians have made it home on [returning] flights, which are largely a PR scheme to run cover for an absolutely catastrophic failure of border management," Mr Cater says.
"[Media coverage] has led most of the public to believe that stranded Australians simply 'should have come home earlier', when things for most of us are far from simple," he continues.
"We had to make hard, irreversible decisions that would permanently affect our lives without any assurance or guidance from the government as to when we would be able to return to these things.
"As I am still experiencing it, there's no clarity when it comes to government policy."
NSW border announcement a 'shock'
Mr Cater said the news of NSW opening their borders to international travellers was a "shock."
"At this moment, less than five days before the border is meant to open, people who are in the same position as me (vaccinated, but with an unrecognised jab) have no idea what will happen to us at the border."
Australia's hotel quarantine allocation has been slashed with the new border rules, although Mr Cater worries that he wouldn't be able to fly with the vaccination he has received anyway.
"I am far more likely to be kicked from a flight," he said, saying flying to Serbia to receive a recognised vaccine is their best option.
"I really don't want to have to do this, I would rather go to 14 days in hotel quarantine, but it's starting to look like my only option at this point," he said.
"There needs to be some viable alternative, or Australians like me will continue to stay stranded."
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