Australia’s international students are ‘weeks away from homelessness’ due to coronavirus

Vikki Qin

There are an estimated 565,000 international students in Australia, and prior to the coronavirus outbreak, many were employed across the country’s hospitality and retail sectors. 

But after losing their jobs, and with no entitlement to government support, international students “are now one of the most vulnerable groups in our society,” lawyer Nick Hanna told SBS News. 

“Often they were first people to lose their jobs, but unlike their Australian counterparts they are not eligible to receive financial benefits.” 

Sydney-based Mr Hanna, who often represents students, said he has been fielding calls from dozens of international students who say they will soon be on the streets. 

“There are a large number of international students, who I’ve spoken to, who are literally, one, two, three weeks away from homelessness.” 

Andrea Andrade lost her job and says she will soon be unable to pay rent.

Andrea Andrade was born in Venezuela but holds Italian citizenship. She has been studying a TAFE course in community services in Perth since 2018.

Like many others, the 21-year-old lost her job in hospitality and is without a financial safety net. She fears if she remains unemployed she won’t be able to afford her rent and food. 

“I cannot pay rent, I cannot pay food. We did try talking to our landlords but they cannot help us,” she said. 

“I have savings but its only a matter of time before that runs out. I do have family who can help me in case of an emergency or in case I hit crisis, but they’re going through the same situation, they have to support themselves.”

Andrea Andrade doesn’t know how she will support herself to remain in Australia.

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Greens Senator Dr Mehreen Faruqi, the party’s education spokesperson, is urging the federal government to extend income support to temporary visa holders, including international students.

“Many international students can no longer rely on family support from their home country, as the pandemic has shut down entire economies and ways of earning a living,” she said. 

“I’ve heard from hundreds of international students in the past week. They are destitute and they are at the point of desperation.” 

‘Go home’

International students are not covered by the federal government’s $130 billion JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme, which passed federal parliament on Wednesday.

Last week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said international students who can no longer afford to support themselves in Australia should go home. 

“All students who come to Australia … have to give a warranty that they are able to support themselves for the first 12 months of their study. That is not an unreasonable expectation of the government, that students would be able to fulfil the commitment that they gave,” he told reporters. 

“The alternative for them to return to their home countries.”

But Mr Hanna said it is not that simple. 

“A large number of international students can’t actually go home,” he said. 

“For example. there is a large number of international students here from Colombia. Well, Colombia has closed its borders to its own citizens. They are literally trapped in Australia and if they don’t have some form of economic support, then they will be in dire straits.”

One Melbourne-based Colombian student, who asked to remain anonymous, told SBS News she felt helpless. 

“The situation is that I have lost my job, and since the crisis is global, my family has not been able to send me money either,” she said.

“The prime minister says ‘go back to your country’ – they don’t understand, my country has closed its borders.”

Migrant rights ‘gradually eroded’

International education is Australia’s third-largest export, injecting an estimated $32 billion a year into the economy.

Students are eligible to work up to 40 hours per fortnight and those who enrolled on a course for six months or more are required to pay taxes. 

Australia is heavily reliant on the sector, but experts say it’s a one-way street.

“Australia, until relatively recently, had a very inclusive system of immigration, where basically anyone coming here had the same rights as citizens,” said Associate Professor Chris Wright, a researcher on the migrant workforce at the University of Sydney.

“Governments have wilfully wound those arrangements back to the point that we are in, where temporary migrants have very few rights, very little support and the downturn comes and the government’s response is ‘go home’.” 

He said years of government policy has “has gradually restricted and eroded the rights of temporary migrants”. 

Students concerned about losing visas

Chinese student Vikki Qin has lost both her jobs as a barista and as the campus activity coordinator with the University of Sydney’s student union. 

She said she has looked at options to return home but flights are limited and expensive. Her parents’ business in Shenzhen has also taken a huge financial hit as a result of COVID-19.

The 22-year-old economics student also fears that if she does go back to China, she may not be able to return to Australia to complete her degree.

“If I have to go back to China, and the travel ban continues, maybe I can’t even come back for semester two, and it means everything will be a waste.”

Vikki Qin fears if she leaves Australia she won’t be able to return.

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She too is struggling to make ends meet. 

“If I don’t ask my family for help, I won’t be able to pay rent, and eat, and pay the bills.” 

Associate Professor Wright said it is very possible homelessness will become a reality for many students. 

“If you haven’t got income support, if you’ve lost your job, if you can’t rely upon government welfare and you can’t support yourselves, in terms of housing, then what alternatives do you have?”  

Minister for Education Dan Tehan said he is aware “the impacts of this virus are affecting international students”. 

“Our government continues to work with universities and the international education sector to minimise the impact of COVID-19, and that includes finding innovative ways to support our international students,” he said in a statement. 

He said the government will allow students access to the retirement savings that they have accumulated while working in Australia. 

“International students who have been here longer than 12 months and who find themselves in financial hardship will be able to access their Australian superannuation,” he said. 

But with migrant exploitation an ongoing issue in Australia, Mr Hanna argued many students have never been paid superannuation.

“Some do, but some employees don’t do the right thing,” he said. 

The latter appears to be the case for the Colombian student who spoke to SBS News. 

“The company that I worked [with], they [didn’t] pay me superannuation for three years,” she said.

Calls for a hardship fund

The City of Melbourne has called for increased support for international students, including the establishment of a hardship fund.

“Every year, Melbourne welcomes thousands of international students with open arms,” the city’s lord mayor Sally Capp said. 

“They’re an incredibly important part of our city, not only because of their significant economic contribution to our city, but as valued members of our community.” 

SBS Nepali: Universities step up to help international students affected by COVID-19

Earlier this week, councillors supported a motion recognising the contribution made by international students to Melbourne and outlining a range of measures to support them.

Some universities are offering financial assistance, including limited housing support, living and study expenses and fee extensions. 

But Universities Australia, the peak body for the sector, acknowledges more help is needed and said it is seeking to work with the federal government to achieve this.

It’s chief executive Catriona Jackson said: “We want to work with the government to support the international students in this country, many of whom have seen their part-time jobs disappear, just like their Australian friends.”

“Universities are offering crisis support, but more will be required.”

Australian universities are providing specific COVID-19 advice on their websites and students are advised to contact their universities for further support. 

Readers seeking support with mental health can contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636. More information is available at Beyond Blue.org.au. Embrace Multicultural Mental Health supports people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others and gatherings are limited to two people unless you are with your family or household.

If you believe you may have contracted the virus, call your doctor (don’t visit) or contact the national Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080. If you are struggling to breathe or experiencing a medical emergency, call 000.

SBS is committed to informing Australia’s diverse communities about the latest COVID-19 developments. News and information is available in 63 languages at sbs.com.au/coronavirus

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