International students in hardship due to coronavirus a ‘looming humanitarian crisis’, advocates say


At the start of the year Ezgi Karasu and Stuart Craig were a financially stable young couple with big dreams for their new lives in Australia, but within months of coronavirus taking off, the pair found themselves without work, facing eviction and asking homelessness services for help.

The pair are among a large number of international students dealing with increasingly desperate financial circumstances that one advocate has described as a “looming humanitarian crisis.”

Ms Karasu and Mr Craig said before coronavirus they never imagined they would need financial support.

“It has been incredible just how quickly it can happen,” Mr Craig said.

“For us, we have had a string of bad luck, just a few bits of bad luck and it takes you from being financially stable and buoyant, you are fine, to talking with people to avoid being homeless.”

Mr Craig and Ms Karasu’s story began in Prague where they met travelling.

He is from Scotland, she is from Turkey and like many couples from different parts of the world, they faced plenty of obstacles when they wanted to be together.

“Australia was pretty much the only place we could find that could offer visas to Turkey and the UK,” Mr Craig said.

In Melbourne Ms Karasu is a student studying early childhood education and Mr Craig had worked as a data analyst.

When coronavirus took off Mr Craig was unable to find work and the cafe Ms Karasu was a part-time waitress at, closed for the pandemic.

They were left without an income.

Should international students get income support?

Ms Karasu wasn’t able to get JobKeeper payments for her waitressing job because she was not a citizen or resident of Australia.

The couple could not access any income support for the same reason.

He said the pair had invested their savings into their lives in Australia, had paid taxes while working but had found themselves without support from the Australian Government or their home countries.

The Federal Labor Party wrote to the Federal Government in April to request coronavirus support be extended to temporary visa holders.

The Shadow Minister for Social Services Linda Burney said the Federal Government needed to carefully consider the impact of its treatment of international students.

“These are not ordinary times, and the government needs to ensure that international students trapped in Australia are not slipping through the cracks, left with nothing and falling into hardship,” she said.

But Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan defended his government’s position.

“International students continue to have access to our world class health system throughout this pandemic.

“Students who have been in Australia longer than 12 months, who find themselves in financial hardship, will be able to access their Australian superannuation.”

On Friday, the NSW Government announced it would spend $20 million dollars funding temporary crisis accommodation for international students stranded in Australia.

Ezgi and Stuart looks at the camera while holding parcels of food including bananas and pasta.
Ezgi Karasu and Stuart Craig collect food parcels from Ezri’s school. The pair lost their jobs and housing because of coronavirus.

With savings dwindling students can’t pay their rent

In April Ms Karasu and Mr Craig told their landlord they were experiencing financial stress.

A month later they were told to vacate, despite national bans on evictions.

Mr Craig then started searching online for homeless services that could help.

But many organisations have told the couple they need some income even for crisis accommodation.

Ms Karasu said she had considered going back to Turkey but faced travel restrictions.

She said she has also invested a lot of money into her education in Australia.

Her educational provider, Melbourne City Institute of Education, has now stepped in to help Ms Karasu and her partner with emergency accommodation.

Cooking school providing meals for hundreds of students

The Institute’s managing director, Gary Coonar, said more than 90 per cent of the international students studying at his organisation had lost their part-time jobs.

“All of their income vanished and their families back home aren’t able to help, they are in the same boat,” he said.

He said many students could not return home, even if they wanted to.

Mr Coonar said his organisation had been doing what it could to help.

Six chefs in white kitchen clothes work at benches in a commercial kitchen.
Culinary students at the Melbourne City Institute of Education have been cooking meals for international students in need.(ABC News: Michael Gleeson)

“We are hearing stories of staff members putting money into bank accounts of students so they can pay their rent, it is just heartbreaking,” he said.

He said some staff members had offered spare bedrooms to students to stay in, while MCIE has been cooking meals for about 100 students each day.

It has been using its commercial kitchen that its cooking students usually use, to prepare meals.

With the help of a charity, Mr Coonar said MCIE had spent $7000 a week for the past eight weeks making more than 7000 meals for international students who can’t afford to buy groceries.

“We do feel like we have been left on our own to manage our students’ situation right now,” he said.

While the Victorian Government has announced relief payments of up to $1,100 to international students, Mr Coonar said he was not aware of any student receiving that payment yet.

Fourteen people stand in a line outside a city building, waiting to collect meals.
International students wait to collect free meals from the Melbourne City Institute of Education’s kitchen at Southbank.(ABC News: Michael Gleeson)

He said that money would help, but the Federal Government needed to offer some form of income support for students during the crisis.

Another international student who has struggled to survive is Alejandro Montecimos who moved to Melbourne from Chile earlier this year for culinary studies.

He lost his part-time work because of coronavirus, when he tried to go home he couldn’t afford the high cost of a flight back.

He had someone connected with MCIE pay two weeks’ rent for him, but he is still running short of money.

“I am very nervous like everyone because I don’t know what will happen in the future,” he said.

Alejandro Montecimos looks at the camera, while standing in chefs clothes in a commercial kitchen.
Alejandro Montecimos come to Melbourne to study, but has lost his part-time job and can’t get home to Chile.(ABC News: Michael Gleeson)

Advocate says this is a ‘looming humanitarian crisis’

The National Union of Students welfare officer, Ali Amin, said there were international students across the country who were “trapped” in Australia, unable to go home and also unable to access income support from Australia.

“The question will be what happens to these students who can not return home, who do not have the option to work, that have to pay their course fees?” he said.

“It definitely would not be wrong to describe this as a humanitarian crisis in a developed country like Australia.

“Students will struggle, they will go hungry.”

Ali Amin looks at the camera with a serious expression, while standing along an outdoor walkway at Adelaide University.
Ali Amin says some international students are running out of money but can’t get home because of travel restrictions or the high cost of flights.(ABC: Ben Pettitt)

Mr Amin said some universities had offered small amounts of relief funding for students, but more needed to be done.

He said many Australians assumed that international students were from wealthy families, but that wasn’t always the case.

He said many international students had borrowed money from banks in their home countries so they could study in Australia and were now struggling to meet repayments and survive.



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