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Speech: International Students

Speeches in Parliament
Mehreen Faruqi 26 Aug 2020

I have spoken numerous times in this chamber about the government's failure to support international students during COVID-19. Sadly, since I spoke on this matter in June the situation has deteriorated even further for the hundreds of thousands of international students who have been left high and dry. Students who are greedily welcomed here are then treated as cash cows. I'll read out verbatim some of the media headlines from the last few months, which tell you all you need to know about this government's treatment of international students: 'International students warn livelihoods at risk without welfare safety net', 'Australia gets poor score on international students', 'Stranded without support, international students across Australia rely on free food to survive', 'International students turn to foodbanks as casual work dries up in second Melbourne lockdown'.

International students are telling me that they have lost hope, that their troubles have been dismissed, that they are suffering anxiety and depression. They want something more than fake empathy from this government. A survey of temporary visa holders released by Unions NSW this month found that between March and May 60 per cent of international students lost their jobs and 46 per cent were forced to skip meals on a regular basis. That's because they don't have access to JobKeeper or JobSeeker like others living in Australia. There is no safety net, there is no stopgap; there is only destitution, desperation and poverty. These statistics are completely damning and outrageous. Australia is quite isolated among similar destination countries for international students in its failure to support students during the COVID crisis. In the UK, New Zealand and Canada there are measures in place to help keep students from going hungry or becoming homeless.

There is a lot of anxiety at the moment within Australian tertiary education about the return of international students during the COVID crisis, and of course we should be making safe pathways for international students to fly in and study in Australia if they wish to do so. We should be encouraging diverse global communities at our universities. But after this abject failure to support international students during the pandemic you have to ask: what is being done to Australia's reputation? Will students continue to want to study here after the terrible treatment they have been subjected to? I wouldn't blame them for striking Australia from the list of countries they are considering.

The latest data indicates that international student visa applications have plummeted by more than a third during the COVID crisis, and it would be all too easy to put the blame squarely on the current border situation and the uncertainty of access to Australia for next year and the years afterwards. International students have been treated like cash cows and denied basic government support during COVID. This is evidently having an impact on Australia's reputation. A survey of 6,000 international students and temporary visa holders, to be released soon by UTS and UNSW academics, has found that 59 per cent of international students and backpackers say that, following their experience here during the pandemic, they would now be somewhat less likely or far less likely to recommend Australia as a place for others to study or for a working holiday. That's a clear majority. It should terrify the government and it should terrify universities. It was not helped by the Prime Minister telling international students to go home at the start of the pandemic. Nor is it helped by the contribution of government backbencher Senator Molan earlier this week, who said that our international student intake has led to our universities losing their 'Australianness'. Pushing this 'us and them' division is vile, shameful and disgraceful. Associate professors Laurie Berg and Bassina Farbenblum have rightly said in The Conversation:

Australia has obligations under international human rights law to ensure every person within its borders has a safe and secure place to live, adequate food and basic health care.

Advising temporary visa holders to go home does not diminish these obligations. Nor does it absolve Australia of its moral obligations to these people it encouraged to greatly invest in studying and working here.

When they see international students this government sees only dollar signs, not the people who contribute in so many ways to our society and our economy. My heart goes out to students who are doing it incredibly tough right now as a result of this government's heartlessness.

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