February 04, 2020 13:46:45
When Karen showed up at Qingdao International Airport on Saturday afternoon for a flight to Australia, she found the airport in disarray.
It was supposed to be a routine flight to Sydney to start a new year of university.
Instead Karen, an international student from China’s Shandong province, was barred from checking in. She was told to sit in the departure hall to wait but as evening fell she discovered her flight had been cancelled.
Airline staff explained the Australian Government had announced a travel ban and that she should wait two weeks for further information.
A Sydney law student, who wants to be known as Ritsu, was also supposed to return to Sydney this week after what was supposed to have been a peaceful Lunar New Year reunited with family.
Now, like thousands of their peers, Karen and Ritsu are grounded in China, where the coronavirus has killed more than 300 people.
For many international students, accommodation, academic progression and employment in Australia all hang in the balance.
“I have absolutely no idea what will happen from here,” Ritsu says, describing the travel ban as an “excuse for racism”.
Ritsu has not been outside his apartment in Xiaogan 50 kilometres from the centre of Wuhan for almost two weeks.
“When I heard about the US travel ban, I was worried,” Ritsu says, expressing concern Australia would follow the US decision. He was right.
The stress caused by the travel ban is not limited to international students.
Their families are also concerned about whether their children will fall behind in their studies.
“My grandparents were originally worried about how fast the disease is spreading but now they’re also very concerned about whether I can continue my education,” says Ritsu, who has already enrolled in classes and paid tuition for this academic year.
“I feel anxious every day and am constantly checking my emails for updates from my uni but they have only given out very general advice,” he says.
Ritsu is also unable to begin a planned internship with a research centre and is beginning to worry he may have to suspend his legal studies.
There is one silver lining, however. His employment at a barristers’ chambers will be unaffected, thanks to a promise to keep the position open for him.
But other challenges loom: his accommodation lease ends in March. Should he renew it? Should he continue hunting for a new flatmate?
Even when the Australian government’s travel ban is lifted students like Ritsu, who comes from Hubei province, will have difficulty accessing an Australia-bound flight because of strict travel bans within China.
Another international student, who wanted to be known as Ray, is currently quarantined at home in Beijing.
She is angry with the Australian Government and says the travel ban is a “poorly thought out knee-jerk reaction to follow the US”.
Her worst fear is being told she must defer her studies. “I’m a law student, so many units have iron-clad pre-requisites,” she says. “This means if I miss one semester, I might as well have missed the whole year.
While Ray is lucky to be able to afford to continue paying her rent in Sydney, financial constraints mean many of her friends are unsure how long they can do the same.
Ray says she is concerned about finding a paid job in Sydney if the travel ban is extended: “It’s already extremely difficult to find a job in Australia as an international student, even if you are already doing really well academically.”
Some international students fear their Australian visa status could be under threat if they fail to meet university attendance quotas.
These attendance quotas often require international students to attend lectures and tutorials in person with a minimum percentage of skipped classes. Limited infrastructure exists to deliver courses online.
Others feel there is an “information gap” between the universities and international students which has left them feeling unsure about their status.
Abbey Shi, an international student from Shanghai and general secretary of the University of Sydney Students’ Representative Council, has set up social media chat groups to collect information about affected students, their locations and academic circumstances.
Some universities have delayed enrolment and offered refunds and deferments if students are unable to return in time.
But Shi says many students want to follow Monash University’s decision and delay the commencement date of semester one classes.
Chinese international students have also begun a change.org petition which demands the travel ban be overturned and describes it as “rash and reckless”. As of Monday morning the petition had attracted more than 11,000 signatures.
Is this racist?
Meanwhile, the travel ban has contributed to a sense of racism against the Chinese-Australian community.
Australian health authorities have advised travellers arriving in Australia from China after February 1 stay at home for at least 14 days from their departure date.
But these guidelines are not always easy to carry out.
Sydney high school teacher Jiawei Zhu arrived on a flight from Wenzhou on the weekend.
She was asked to move out of her flat, where she shares common spaces with her landlord, because of concerns that she might be infected with the coronavirus.
She was forced to arrange alternative accommodation for two weeks at short notice.
Her landlord agreed to cover half the cost of Zhu’s temporary accommodation but she is distressed by her treatment.
“It’s unclear how this situation should be resolved and who should cover the costs of my rent while I’m living elsewhere,” said Zhu.Some instances of racial profiling have been more overt.
On Sunday Chinese-Australian man Jono Gu saw racist graffiti on walls in Melbourne and a driver shouted at him to “go home” while he was wearing a face mask.
“It was disappointing and surprisingly regressive for what’s meant to be one of the most progressive cities in Australia,” Gu said.
“It’s all adding to an atmosphere of increased racial tension,” he says.
Some names have been changed to protect privacy.
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February 03, 2020 13:28:55