Jobless & stranded, international students in Australia ask for government help: ‘We are humans too’

international students Australia
Many cafes and businesses are closing in Australia, putting international students out of work. Source: Saeed Khan/AFP

MBA student Aneeta Karim used to be financially independent — until the coronavirus slashed her income by more than half.

Originally from Pakistan, Aneeta now works as a part-time assistant sales manager to support herself while studying at the Holmes Institute Brisbane, where she is set to graduate in a few months.

Although she is allowed to work full-time (40 hours every fortnight) in the current COVID-19 crisis, her hours have been slashed to only 18 hours per fortnight. She might lose this entirely if the country goes under total lockdown.

Aneeta, who holds a Master in Communication degree from the University of Queensland (UQ) told Study International,When I was at UQ, which is in the G8 group of universities in Australia, it was very hard for me to pay AU$14,000 each semester, so my parents paid most of it.”

“But I have been reliant on myself after that degree and I fend for myself really well. But honestly, it is very hard to survive on a 40 hours job in a fortnight.”

international students Australia

A quiet Central Business District in Sydney. Australia. Many retail stores and restaurants have closed, forcing international students in Australia to face unemployment. Source: Peter Parks/AFP

Another Pakistani student, Ahmed Zubair, is facing even tougher times. Currently pursuing his Bachelor’s degree in business from a university in Sydney, he relies on his part-time job as restaurant manager to pay for his expenses.

But Sydney’s commercial hub is now deserted as pubs and restaurants close as ordered by the Australian government – for Ahmed, this means he’s out of a job. He has savings but it will not last him more than a week.

“My university has already helped by not collecting fees until the situation gets better, which is good. But I don’t know what I’m gonna do after I’ve finished my savings, how I’m going to eat and survive,” he told Study International.

international students Australia

Ahmed Zubair is one of the many international students who have lost their part-time jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Source: Ahmed Zubair


Ahmed feels it is unfair that international students are left out in the cold, compared to Australian citizens who will receive cash handouts.

“I know I’m not the only one who’s affected by the pandemic. But I’ve been hearing all the facilities and subsidies that are being provided to the residents and nobody is talking about international students,” he said.

“Like it’s quite simple – we are humans too, we are running out of resources and we want someone to help us. Australia is a great place, we really look up to the leaders here but I haven’t heard a single thing about the benefits of the international students.”

Do international students in Australia deserve support and financial assistance?

There is an assumption that all international students are wealthy and do not deserve any “handouts,” but that’s not necessarily true.

While some are indeed from wealthy backgrounds, there are those from middle-class families who depend on part-time jobs or those on partial scholarships, with limited funds.

International students in Australia who depend on their part-time income to fund their expenses or even tuition fees like Ahmed and Aneeta are finding themselves at a loss as to what to do.

international students australia

A man gestures to the cameras in an inner-city hotel where travellers returned from overseas are staying in isolation in Melbourne on March 30, 2020. Australian citizens and residents returning to Australia must complete a mandatory 14-day supervised quarantine period in a hotel paid for by the government in an effort to curb the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. Source: William West/AFP

Prime Minister Scott Morison recently said that for those they can’t afford to stay in the country, they should just leave and head back home.

He also pointed out that it is a requirement for students who come to Australia to be able to support themselves financially in the first 12 months of their study programme.

He said, “Australia must focus on its citizens and its residents to ensure that we can maximise the economic supports that we have.”

international students Australia

Only Australian citizens and returning permanent residents and their immediate family members are permitted to enter Australia until further notice. Source: Peter Parks/AFP

With travel bans and cancelled flights, going home is just not an option for many international students, leaving many students stranded and broke.

Aneeta said, “The borders are all closed. The only thing important to me is to get a graduate visa so I can have full-time work rights after I graduate in 3.5 months and I am able to recover more than AU$62,000 that my parents and I have invested in my Australian qualifications.”

Students like Aneeta and Ahmed are not necessarily asking to be given the exact same rights or help like Australian citizens, but hope to receive some kind of government acknowledgement and support.

Aneeta hopes for a tax exemption as she has been paying taxes – as much as AU$4,000 in the past nine months.

She said, “Apart from investing AU$62,000 in the burgeoning billion-dollar international education export, my tax feels like the price for living on Australian soil.”

“Every time I do my tax returns, I sign a declaration that I am a permanent resident ‘only’ for tax purposes and then [the Australian Taxation Office] ATO shows you graphically where my tax money is going: social welfare, health, education, defense, general public services etc.”

Yet she doesn’t get to reap any of these benefits herself as an international student.

“All I have is my dream to live in this country as a permanent resident one day, to be able to recover some of the money that my parents have paid from their savings after working for over three decades in a developing country like Pakistan, where the currency is 100 times lesser than the Australian dollar in value.”

As for Ahmed, he said he is not expecting to be treated like an Australian, but would appreciate a little help.

“Even if we as international students in Australia could get AU$500 a fortnight to help us get by, that would be better than nothing.”

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