Coronavirus pandemic leaves Australia’s international students ‘stranded’, struggling to buy food


April 03, 2020 08:02:34

Daniela Maza has lived in Australia for the past four years but, like potentially hundreds of thousands of other students around the country, has suddenly found herself facing significant financial distress in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.

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Key points:

  • More than 500,000 international students were in Australia when the coronavirus pandemic was declared
  • Many are now struggling to pay their bills but temporary visa holders like international students are yet to be offered significant financial help
  • Queensland Minister Kate Jones is asking for the Federal Government to extend its fortnightly coronavirus supplement to international students

More than 500,000 international students were in Australia when the coronavirus pandemic hit and it has left many reeling.

“No one was prepared for how this was going to explode out of nowhere,” Ms Maza said.

“If, one month ago, someone would have told me ‘in a month’s time you are going to be struggling to pay your bills, food and rent’, I wouldn’t believe it.”

The 24-year-old from El Salvador says many students in Brisbane are trying to pool their food and accommodation, after being stood down from casual jobs.

“I have shared my groceries with a couple of friends,” she said.

“We’re obviously trying to support each other as much as we can.

“I’m about to finish my degree — do I pay my school or do I buy something to eat?

“I’ve never been faced with a situation where I have to choose, whether I pay for my rent or I pay for my food.”

The international education sector contributes more than $30 billion to the nation’s economy, including almost $6 billion in Queensland alone.

While Australian residents and citizens are being offered federal JobSeeker allowances, state-based rental grants and access to superannuation, temporary visa holders like international students are yet to be offered any significant financial assistance.

Work hour restrictions are being relaxed, allowing temporary visa holders to work up to 40 hours a week in supermarkets or aged care in a bid to help ease the local demand, and up to 20,000 international nursing students may be called up to assist on the front line.

Queensland Minister urges national approach

Queensland Tourism Industry Development Minister Kate Jones has now written to the Federal Government, asking for its newly announced $550 fortnightly coronavirus supplement to be extended to international students.

She is the first Minister in the country to raise the issue publicly.

“The data that we have suggests that 100,000 international students are still here in Queensland right now,” Ms Jones said.

“We’ve seen a massive trend over the last decade in Australia to move towards funding our domestic universities through the fees that international students pay and now we’re in a situation where our international students need us and we’re not stepping up.

“We need to do more as a nation to support the hundreds of thousands of international students that are stranded here in Australia because many of them can’t even get home, even if they wanted to.

“Some of the most heartbreaking stories I’ve heard are people that have already done four-and-a-half years of full time study, achieving great marks and really enjoying their time here in Queensland.

“We don’t want to send these international students back to their home country with a bad taste in their mouth.”

The State Government has committed $3 million to assist student hubs across the state.

Thousands of Australian jobs at risk if sector collapses

Brisbane-based migration agent Shannon Semenikow said many students do not know where to turn.

“They’re stuck between a rock and a hard place,” Mr Semenikow said.

“I guess they’re stuck here away from family, away from friends and everything — they don’t necessarily have that support ecosystem and community that they may have at home.

“People may look at them as foreigners in Australia but it’s people that employ a bunch of Australians that are working in international education — this is all the universities, all the private providers, the TAFEs, the English schools around Australia.

“So there’s thousands of people that are employed in this industry that are being affected by COVID-19 and the border closures as well.

“With international education being such a big industry, we’ll be judged on how we deal with this situation and how we respond.

“We’re competing out there with the likes of the US, Canada, the UK, Europe in the international education market and I think if we can respond to this well, it will have a big impact on how we’ll be seen around the world for the international education market ongoing.”

‘They can’t even send money to us’

Chai Kalavalapalli works as an Uber Eats delivery driver while studying at James Cook University in Brisbane.

The 25-year-old said his family is unable to send money from India because of the strict isolation measures in place.

“India is completely locked down, from last week there was a surge in cases in my place and the State Government has put strict rules, even for supermarkets, all the banks and everything has been closed,” he said.

“They can’t even send money to us here.

“On Facebook, we have some people saying ‘We are giving away some food in this restaurant and we went there but they said they can only afford [to help] five to 10 people.

“We can’t ask our home country government to help us because we are in their situation.

“No one expected this crisis.”

‘People should contact their consulate’

A spokesman for the Federal Minister for Social Services Anne Ruston said international students should seek emergency help from their relevant consulates.

“There are no restrictions on foreigners departing Australia,” the spokesperson said.

“People should contact their consulate for advice on arrangements to return home.

“Before being granted a student visa to study in Australia, prospective international students are required to declare they have the financial capacity to cover living and tuition expenses for the first 12 months of their stay.

“This includes the cost of a return airfare to Australia from their home country.

“For those experiencing financial hardship, the Government has announced a $200 million boost to community services which will expand support to vulnerable people including assistance for paying bills and buying other essentials such as food, clothing and petrol.”

Ms Maza said many students would not be able to afford a flight home and is hoping the Federal Government will allow students to access their superannuation.

“If Australia wants us out then let me access that money so I can buy a $10,000 plane ticket because that’s the cost for going back home and I will gladly go back home.

“I really hope that Australians that have been stranded overseas and cannot come back home for any reason… that they get the help that they need and they don’t get treated as we’re getting treated today.”

A number of universities are offering small food parcels and other emergency relief for students in immediate need.

If you are a student and need urgent support, please call the Study Queensland information line on 1800 778 839.

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First posted

April 03, 2020 06:45:49

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