The year 2020 has derailed everyone’s plans. The pandemic has shut down the country and whole industries, and cost millions of people their jobs.
But since the crisis began, the federal government has refused to extend any kind of assistance to the huge number of people who are here on temporary visas. They do not have the safety net of jobkeeper, jobseeker or the coronavirus supplement.
I immigrated from Colombia to Australia six years ago. My cousins and my sister arrived first, and are now Australian citizens. Like many people who immigrate with temporary visas, we were encouraged to come here to study, and spent a lot of money to do it. I now have my master’s degree, and we have all worked here and paid taxes. Just like many other migrants, we call Australia home.
But neither we nor anyone else could have predicted this year.
I work closely with temporary visa holders through Somos21, a not-for-profit organisation supporting Latin American students across Australia, and the Sydney Alliance, an organisation that advocates for students and migrant workers. So I’ve seen the devastating impact this virus has had on people who are locked out of vital income support.
Thousands of international students, backpackers, refugees and asylum seekers were working in the food service and retail industries. They are now unemployed, in danger of homelessness and lining up at charities for food vouchers just to survive.
Some of the stories shared with me by students I’ve worked with are horrifying. Students are having to choose between paying their course fees or eating regular meals. Others, desperate for any form of paying work, are being preyed on by dangerous and exploitative employers. Job ads specifically targeting international students are on the rise, usually offering cash-in-hand rates at far below the minimum wage.
Food delivery has become a boom industry, at the expense of the livelihoods and, in many cases, the lives of the students desperate enough to take on the work. In the last few months alone, five delivery riders have died on the roads, delivering burgers and dumplings to people in better financial circumstances. But when you can’t wait for another week without an income to pay rent or put food on your table, you will accept anything.
The experience of studying in Australia is sold to international students as a chance to bond, make friends and build a whole life in a new country. But deprived of even the most basic means of survival, for many it has become stressful, shameful and crushingly lonely. They are unable to reach out to their families for help, and with no meaningful support coming from the government, the mental health of many students I’ve worked with has plummeted.
The acting immigration and multicultural affairs minister, Alan Tudge, repeatedly downplayed the pandemic’s economic impact on migrants, acknowledging that the pandemic has been “tougher for some families” but making “no apologies” for excluding them from support.
Worse, instead of helping to support us through this crisis, the prime minister told us to “go home”. In reality, we are home – we live here. Many of us have families here. But even if we wanted to leave, flights are astonishingly expensive and many countries have completely closed their borders.
Some of us have almost finished our degrees after years of study, and some are just a year or two away from being able to apply for citizenship. If we leave now, the lives we have built here would be lost. Everything we have invested in and worked so hard towards would be lost.
When lockdown hit, 54% of temporary migrants lost their jobs. Another 29% had their hours cut. Family support from overseas reduced by about 45%.
After months of gruelling lockdown, and with many industries only now starting to rehire for some of the jobs that were lost in March, the situation is as dire as ever. So how can we survive without any assistance?
People in my community are now vulnerable to exploitation and dangerous working conditions because they are so desperate to earn money. Nonprofits have helped thousands of people with grocery vouchers, but it’s not enough. There are children who are hungry simply because their parents are not Australian citizens.
Meanwhile, the government is trying to entice new students by granting offshore visas and international student pilot programs for South Australia. Clearly, the government is aware that international students alone contribute at least $40bn to this country’s economy – they realise that they need people to keep choosing Australia as their education destination.
But why would we recommend Australia when other countries, like the UK, Canada, and New Zealand, are actually helping international students and other temporary visa holders through this crisis?
They wanted us to come here, but in a crisis, we feel abandoned. It is deeply hypocritical.
They cannot welcome us with one breath and with the next, tell us to go home or starve.
Education may be a major export industry, but we are not cash cows. We are people, no different from citizens, who need support during this unprecedented event. And we deserve better than this.
Diana Olmos is an international student community organiser with the Sydney Alliance