House debates

Wednesday, 24 February 2021

Constituency Statements

COVID-19: International Students

10:55 am

Photo of Bill ShortenBill Shorten (Maribyrnong, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme) Share this | | Hansard source

Over recent months I've been talking about different groups left behind and still suffering because of COVID-19. I've spoken of travel agents and the tourism industry more generally and I've spoken about the live events sector, but today I want to speak about a group who are, in my opinion, amongst the most forgotten people of COVID-19: young international students. They were told in May of last year that they should just go home. But, for a lot of these students, it's not as simple as just hopping on a plane with a gold Amex and flying back to where they came from, because those are not the circumstances in which they arrived here.

I'm particularly concerned about international students who are suffering from mental illness exacerbated by the COVID-19 experience in Australia. They have stressed relationships. They are living within four walls of very small apartments, learning online. This is not the deal they thought they would experience during their time in Australia. They experience loneliness. They may have lost their jobs. They have to queue up, hundreds of them, each day to get food packages from the local support services. They face a greater risk of domestic violence. They have felt abandoned. They've been treated as cash cows by Australian society. We take their money, but I'm not convinced that their experience here is that which we would wish our young people to experience in another country. We haven't been, I believe, the generous dinky-di Aussie hosts which we like to see in the mirror.

A lot of international students can't access legal support. They can't access mental health services. They're certainly not eligible for Centrelink. At the same time, their families have spent their life's savings to send them here for an Australian education. There's a great pressure on them to succeed. Simply going home is not an option for every international student. I acknowledge the Victorian government created a $45 million fund last year. But, simply put, one-off grants from universities or governments are not enough to fill the cracks and stop people falling between them. I acknowledge the work of the Victorian coroners office and Orygen mental health services, and The Guardian, writing about these issues. But specifically I think that this is a crisis.

During the aftermath of Black Saturday, I worked on reconstruction. But the story which haunted me amongst many of the haunting stories was of three students from overseas perishing in a park somewhere near Marysville, all on their own. What a terrible way to die. But are we not yet risking that with our international students in a more modern form in COVID-19? They don't vote, they're not very rich, and their English might not be proficient. Many of them come here perhaps not in full maturity although legally adults. It's unfashionable in this country to talk about people who can't vote or exert their will, but I will keep talking about the plight of international students. It's not good enough to take their money on the good days but forget them when the going gets tough. That is un-Australian.