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International student cohort facing daily struggle to buy food and pay rent

Major concerns: “Given economic shutdowns both in Australia and in their home countries, many foreign students are left with no sources of support or ways of generating income to balance their savings on a lifeline.”

The plight of international students is in the spotlight as the government and universities try to prop up an international educational industry that injects about $39 billion into the economy

DESPITE a new injection of government funding, advocates for foreign students in Australia say many are isolated and desperate, and have already turned to emergency food and support services to tide them through the COVID-19 crisis.

“International students are reliant on work-for-pay income, financial support from families overseas and depleting savings as economic uncertainty looms,” Seb Narciso, mentoring officer for the Queensland Filipino Youth Association, said.

Mr Narciso has lived in Brisbane for three years, completing a Bachelor’s degree in public policy and international relations at The University of Queensland, and would like to study for another two years once he has saved up to pay for it.

He says part-time work for many of Australia’s 700,000 foreign students at Australian universities and educational facilities, has simply dried up making it a day-today struggle to buy food and pay rent.

“Given economic shutdowns both in Australia and in their home countries, many foreign students are left with no sources of support or ways of generating income to balance their savings on a lifeline,” Mr Narciso said.

“Unfortunately, this has reached the point where foreign students and other temporary visa holders have resorted to boarding repatriation flights to their home countries if made available to them.”

Foodbank Australia, says temporary workers and international students are the most desperate and in need of emergency food.

In Cairns, volunteers and student chefs have partnered with cafes and restaurants to supply hundreds of meals a day to students reported to be hungry and sleeping rough.

“I’ve heard some horrible stories about students in our region who are struggling to find food every day,” Cairns MP Michael Healy told the Cairns Post.

“If my child was ever learning while overseas and this type of thing happened, I’d like to think they’d be looked after with the basics”.

Many foreign students are simply stranded in Australia.

Their countries have shut borders to all entrants – citizens included – or there are no flights that can get them home, or transit countries such as Singapore have shut their borders to travellers.

The Philippines is one of those countries.

There are no flights home, and no way of getting across the archipelago even if they could find a flight.

In many cases, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, foreign students were considered among Australia’s most vulnerable workers – often forced into precarious employment in the gig economy, at risk of exploitation, underpayment and unsafe work practices.

Sr Margaret Ng, who regularly deals with international students in her ministry as Coordinator of the Josephite Counter Trafficking Project said the need was urgent, and that many felt isolated and separated from the Australian community.

She has been urging state government’s to financially support those who need it, pointing out that the international educational industry injects about $39 billion into the Australian economy.

“Thousands are stranded with no safety net during this pandemic,” Sr Ng said.

“Many have found themselves unemployed and, therefore, left stranded and helpless during this time of uncertainty feeling defeated by this unknown enemy.”

During the last month most state governments have recognised the plight of international students and reached out with support packages.

The Queensland Government announced $2.2 million in funding for counselling, tuition support, laptops, isolation care-packs, pre-prepared meals and other living expense payments to students.

It’s a comparatively small injection, considering the international education sector in Queensland contributed $3.9 billion to Australia’s export income in 2018-19 and employs more than 20,000 people across the state.

One university alone – The University of Queensland – is expecting to lose at least $240 million this year as COVID-19 decimates foreign student enrolments.

“There is no secret about international students and temporary visa holders being seen as flows of trade with quantifiable returns by government, universities, etcetera,” Mr Narciso said. “We’re worried that we are seen as expendable and replaceable flows.

“It is important for government to support students and other temporary visa holders.”

On top of the state government support now starting to reach those students who have remained in Australia, plans are already underway to fast-track the return of foreign university students, potentially ahead of other international visitors, with expert health advice already prepared for the National Cabinet to consider.

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