Excluding international students and migrant workers from emergency economic measures in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic could lead to unintended economic consequences, migration experts have warned.
- International students say they are “disheartened” by the government message to “go home” during pandemic
- COVID-19 is not just a health and economic crisis, but a migrant crisis, experts say
- Australia will be economically and culturally poorer as a result, demographers warn
Last week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison told international students and temporary visa holders they should “return to their home countries” if they were not able to support themselves in Australia.
The message was a jarring one for many in Australia’s million-strong migrant workforce, and demographers warn the stance could cause the country’s economy to take a post-pandemic hit, as well as alter the multicultural fabric of Australian society.
There are also concerns that Australia’s lacklustre response to international students’ needs could push them away and deal a blow to Australia’s fourth-largest export sector.
International education contributed $37.6 billion to the economy in the last financial year and supported 240,000 jobs, according to Government figures.
Melbourne University student David Bogi, who came from India to study a masters of international journalism in Australia, told the ABC he was “not surprised” but “extremely disheartened” by Mr Morrison’s message.
Mr Bogi was one of more than 750,000 international students Australia hosted last year, with the majority from China and India.
Mr Bogi said he paid significant university fees and also contributed to the economy by working and paying taxes, adding that those who paid taxes should also be eligible to receive benefits.
While he had saved scrupulously to study in Australia, he said his savings was now depleting rapidly after he lost his job due to the coronavirus outbreak.
It’s a familiar story for Yunan Lin, who is studying a master’s degree in engineering at the University of Melbourne.
The 24-year-old lost his only source of income after losing his part-time job at a restaurant when it switched to selling just takeaway.
Mr Lin said he was also “greatly disappointed” with Mr Morrison’s message, especially as he had made the effort to transit through Thailand — and stay there for 14 days — before being allowed to return Australia to study and work to pay his rent.
“Mr Morrison simplified the issue or had no awareness of the complexity of this problem.
“We spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to study in Australia, but this developed country — which teaches about humanitarianism and democracy — cannot understand how much our families have suffered in this global pandemic.”
Mr Lin’s parents are also struggling financially after being forced to close their restaurant back in his hometown in China for months.
Economic shocks and costs
Acting Immigration Minister Alan Tudge said there was an expectation international students could support themselves in the first year. Those who have been in Australia for more than 12 months will be able to access their superannuation.
According to the Department of Home Affairs website, international students need to have enough money to pay for 12 months of living costs for them and any family members who travel with them to Australia.
The Department estimated that to be $21,041 per student or guardian.
Global migration expert Anna Boucher, who has written about COVID-19 posing a “migration crisis”, said some people working in the sector believe the “asset testing” — or cost of living benchmark — for students looking to study in Australia was quite low.
“One argument is that they’re expected to be frugal, another is it’s unrealistic,” said Dr Boucher, an associate professor at the University of Sydney.
“It allows a high number of students to gain admission, but then they’re really reliant on those part-time jobs.
According to a recent survey by Unions NSW, half of the migrant workers surveyed have lost their jobs, while a fifth have had their hours reduced.
Dr Boucher added it was possible for the impact of COVID-19 on international students in Australia to be “a game changer” for how students make their decisions on where to study in the future.
Brian Schmidt, Vice-Chancellor of Australian National University, told the ABC’s RN Breakfast that student numbers at the university were already down by about 10 per cent, which was currently “manageable”.
“But the uncertainty of the second semester, where the full force of the COVID-19 pandemic hits our students, I think we do not know whether or not we’re going to have that 10 per cent hit or 40 or 50 per cent, we just cannot tell.”
ANU and Melbourne University are among several tertiary institutions to have created emergency relief funds for students.
Mr Schmidt said universities will need to continue working with the Government over the next few months to find a solution.
“We’re going to need to find a way forward, because if we don’t there will be universities [that will be] a shadow of their former selves, the system will be a shadow of its former self.”
Mr Schmidt also pointed out that many students had no other options and couldn’t go back to their countries, even if they wanted to.
“The universities are carrying the can right now, but it is something that we need to work with government and I think we both have responsibility in this area, but it’s a shared responsibility.”
‘Australia will be economically and culturally poorer’
Dr Boucher said for high-migration countries like Australia, immigration is “interconnected with every single aspect of the economy”.
She noted that Australia’s 2019 budget estimates showed an underlying assumption in the budget surplus calculation tied to high levels of net overseas migration (NOM), estimated to rise to 263,000 in 2022.
But as the Government also put an annual cap on permanent entry in 2019 at 160,000, she argued that the bulk of that NOM can now be expected to come from temporary migrants “who are also lucrative to the state of the budget as net contributors to Australia”.
“Most temporary migrants are workers who pay tax. Fewer are of schooling or retirement age, so they place less pressure on social services, from which they are often excluded in any case through a general requirement to take out health insurance,” she wrote.
Liz Allen, a demographer from ANU, said Australia would also be “economically and culturally poorer” as a result of near-zero international migration due to border lockdowns.
“Nativism is likely to creep in and take greater hold, resulting in a rise of racism and discriminatory practises,” she said.
She said Australia “desperately needed” migrants to stay and contribute to maintaining the economy and, in time, rebuilding after the pandemic passes.
“But the lack of social and economic supports could see migrants leave the country in pursuit of better options,” she said.
Dr Allen added she was hopeful that Australians would confront any growth in racism, but that it required good leadership from government and community to do so effectively.
“Whether we like it or not, admit it or not, Australia still has a problem with white Australia policy sentiments,” she said.
“Australia still has white Australia hang-ups: many people in Australia were raised during the white Australia policy, raised by those who grew up under the white Australia policy, or socialised into the false notion Australia is a white nation with a white history.
A Department of Home Affairs spokesperson said in a statement the “Government’s current focus is on keeping Australians in work and business as we battle the impacts of COVID-19”.
They said the Government had also announced changes to temporary visa holder arrangements on April 4 “in order to protect the health of our community, safeguard job opportunities for Australians, support critical industries … and assist with rapid recovery post-virus.”
Those changes include enabling most temporary visa holders with work rights to access their Australian superannuation and allowing international students to work up to 40 hours per fortnight.
“Australia is a successful multicultural country built on many waves of formal migration post-World War II,” the spokesperson said.
“Migration makes a substantial contribution to Australia’s economic prosperity, national wellbeing and social cohesion.
“The Government is closely monitoring migration and visa settings to ensure they are consistent with public health measures, are flexible, and do not displace job opportunities for Australians so that Australia can deal with the immediate and post recovery impacts of COVID-19.”
‘Treated as lower-class residents’
Wenli, who is in her 30s and comes from Wuhan — the initial epicentre of the outbreak — is one of many Asians in Australia who have expressed concern about increased racism due to COVID-19.
She is on a working holiday visa and lost her job at a tourist company in North Queensland around three weeks ago.
She had worked for the company for eight months full-time but was denied any compensation for being laid off and was not eligible for any social welfare benefits.
For now, she has relocated to Sydney.
“I was also worried about violence against Asians [in regional areas]. It was reported a lot in the news lately. I think Sydney is safer,” she said.
She said Mr Morrison’s stance on temporary visa holders like her “is legal and has logic”, but still stung.
“International students and people on temporary visas are treated as lower-class residents. I felt like after living in Australia for a while, I’m now used to this.”
And it’s not just international students and working holiday visa holders who are struggling.
Professor Boucher said she couldn’t “think of a single area of migration that is not affected” by COVID-19 in Australia.
There has been some reprieve for some workers, however, with the Government announcing last Saturday they would allow Pacific seasonal workers whose visas were due to expire to stay and work in Australia for another 12 months.
“This will enable them to support themselves and continue to make a critical contribution to Australia’s agriculture sector and food security,” according to a statement from Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne and Alex Hawke, Minister for International Development and the Pacific.
“Pacific and Timorese workers are highly valued by agricultural employers, who have made it clear they want Pacific workers to be able to remain here and continue working.
While seasonal workers have received support from the Government, many temporary migrants are still waiting for good news.
“There’s a broader question around when do we become responsible for people,” Dr Boucher said.
“Instead of just throwaway comments like ‘go home’, I think we need to go back to ‘OK, we can’t help everybody, but we do have an obligation to some’.
Additional reporting by Erin Handley