australia international students
Eligible Australia international students can return to Australia from Dec. 15, 2021 but this wasn’t without some hurdles initially. Source: William West/AFP

Australia international students have had a tumultuous time after a nearly two-year ban for their return to the country. 

Australia had some of the strictest border policies in the world. The Land Down Under first closed its borders to most international travellers in March 2020. Pilot plans to facilitate international students’ return were announced and shelved repeatedly, sparking frustration for many who were waiting to return to Australia. 

To date, eligible visa holders such as international students can re-enter the country starting December 15, 2021, but this wasn’t without its challenges. Here are five times Australia international students tried — and failed — to return to Australia: 

Flip-flop government announcements puts Australia international students on edge

Australia closed its borders to all non-citizens and non-residents in March 2020, with exemptions only for Australian citizens, permanent residents and their immediate family, including spouses, legal guardians and dependants.

Australia international students faced an unwelcome rhetoric from the country from the get-go. 

In April 2020, Scott Morrison said it was time for international students to “return to their home countries” if they can’t support themselves in the country. This sparked anxiety for students who couldn’t heed the Australian prime minister’s advice if their home countries were in lockdown. 

Australia announced plans to facilitate Australia international students’ return to the country but shelved them on numerous occasions. This flip-flop government announcements left students stranded abroad high and dry. 

State premiers floated proposals to bring international students back to Australia, only to later announce that they’ve been put on hold. New South Wales was among the states with several pilot announcements but were scuppered following community outbreaks.

Australia international students

Flip-flop government announcements puts Australia international students on edge. Source: Saeed Khan/AFP

Social media campaigns to return to Australia

As Australia’s border closure continued, international students voiced their frustrations and concerns via the #LetUsBackToAus and #InternationalStudentsAustralia hashtag online, but their efforts often came to naught.

Student group Voice of International Students Australia (VoISA) had worked with affected students to “sensitise the Australian government to the plight of international students stuck offshore.” On March 3, 2021, they created a Twitter firestorm ahead of the upcoming cabinet meeting taking place two days later to ensure their issue gets the attention it deserves.

One VoISA member, who only wanted to be known as Amna, told Study International that the team had been involved in providing input to the petitioner who submitted petition EN2217 (a petition addressed to the House of Representatives calling for their exemption from Australia’s COVID-19 travel border restrictions), in addition to sending out collective emails to MPs and universities to seek support for their return to Australia, and approaching reporters for media coverage.

Some students are planning to treat the outcome of the March 5, 2021 meeting as the last straw — unless there is positive news about their return to Australia, they plan to transfer to universities in Canada or the UK.

Australia international students sign petitions to return 

In January 2021, international students petitioned the Australian government for travel exemptions. According to the petition, many university students were struggling with the “bad quality” of online lessons. 

The petition added, “Lots of students do not have online classes and they have to be exempted to enter Australia to schools as soon as possible.” The petition also appeals for travel exemptions for international students not just for their future, but also for the recovery of Australia’s economy. 

“International students are willing to quarantine, obey any rules and pay all the fees. We are willing to quarantine in student  apartments and will not take any stranded Australians’ places. Please allow international students, who do not have online lessons and urgently need to enter Australia to study, to go back to their schools and continue their education on a voluntary basis,” it read.

Long break between the Australia’s first and following pilot plans

Australia has only had one successful pilot programme in 2020, which saw 63 international students returning to Charles Darwin University in the Northern Territory last November. Details of other pilot programmes to bring international students back to Australia were not finalised.

Critics argued that it was a negligible number, and Australian states and territories made proposals for students’ return, but many were put on ice following an uptick in COVID-19 cases. 

Remote students have complained about the poor quality of online learning and wish to return to face-to-face learning as soon as possible.

australia international students

Australian travel restrictions do not lift easily, not even for 20-time Grand Slam tournament champion and sports superstar Novak Djokovic. Source: Marco Bertorello AFP

Celebrities, actors allowed to travel to Australia

When student pilot plans were repeatedly put on ice, some online users described the situation as “scollipop,” a portmanteau of lollipop and Morrison that refers to a sweet enticement of hope regarding their return to Australia.

Australia international students had to contend with celebrities and athletes being allowed to travel into Australia amid the pandemic while fee paying students were still locked out of the country. 

The Sydney Morning Herald reported that at least 113 private international flights have landed in Australia since April 2020, mostly from the US. Passengers on private jets include celebrities and other wealthy individuals, business executives on corporate trips and sporting teams. 

Among the celebrities that had resided in Australia amid the country’s tight border closure include actress Natalie Portman, her husband Benjamin Millepied and their children. Portman has also brought her parents over.  

Unvaccinated international students will not be spared either. Australian travel restrictions have very strict and specific rules that must be followed before anyone can be exempted.

While Australia has now opened its borders to the world, allowing fully vaccinated students to travel to Australia without needing to apply for an exemption, unvaccinated international students are not allowed to travel to Australia unless they have an exemption to prove their reason for not being vaccinated.

Australian travel restrictions do not lift easily, not even for 20-time Grand Slam tournament champion and sports superstar Novak Djokovic who was held in a room overnight over his visa’s validity and evidence of his medical exemption from getting a COVID vaccine. The exemption was supposed to allow Djokovic into the country, where he’s set to compete in the Australian Open even though he had not been vaccinated.