International students in Melbourne are bracing for more hardship after the city returned to a six-week lockdown prompted by a spike in coronavirus cases.
Melburnians who have lost work or who have been forced to close their businesses can access boosted unemployment benefits or the jobkeeper wage subsidy, but international students and other temporary visa holders are locked out of federal government assistance.
Before the pandemic, many supported themselves through part-time or casual work, an option that has become increasingly difficult after the return to stage three restrictions placed 5 million Melburnians into lockdown.
Yet John, who did not want his real name used in case it affected his scholarship, is now unable to adequate provide food for himself, his partner and his three children.
The family, who live in Melbourne’s inner north, rely each week on emergency food relief from the Kasih project, a community organisation that has been providing care packages and winter clothing to international students since late March.
He said the $1,100-a-fortnight Australia Award scholarship covered his rent, but he had very little left over to cover food for the family.
He was also particularly worried about the emotional toll that the next six weeks might have on his family, particularly as his children return to learning from home.
“I’ve got three kids. They don’t speak English so they’re relying on me,” he said. “[We have] one laptop for the kids from school.”
The Kasih’s project founder, Indonesian travel agent Angelina Sukiri, said the organisation was assisting about 500 students and working holiday visa holders in Melbourne.
Most were Indonesian postgraduate students in their 30s or 40s with children and partners.
“Some who came to Australia with their families could not afford to buy a flight to get back to Indonesia,” Sukiri said.
Sukiri said some students had been eating once a day and were just trying to survive.
“Most of them [were] working at a cafe or as cleaners,” she said. “During lockdown it’s impossible for them to get a job. From the first lockdown until now, it’s very hard for them.
“Some of the students now are really struggling with paying rent [for a house], or even a rental room.”
During the first wave of the pandemic, photos emerged from major cities of huge lines of students and other temporary visa holders queuing for free meals at restaurants and food banks.
With unemployed Australians receiving the increased rate of government benefits, the charity Foodbank has said much of the increase in demand it has experienced has been driven by visa holders who cannot access Centrelink.
Victorian government figures show about 150,000 international students were studying in Victoria in 2020. In lieu of federal support, the state government offered a $1,100 one-off hardship payment for them in April.
But thousands are still relying on charity to make ends meets.
Brazil’s perilous situation has added to other factors – including the cost and availability of flights – that make heading home particularly difficult for students from that country.
“The problem is even bigger there, they probably will not find jobs,” said Orlando Berne, who is involved with a group of Melbourne volunteers who have been providing food relief to Brazilian students during the pandemic.
Regardless, Berne said many students who had made it to Melbourne from Brazil did not want give up their opportunity to live and study in Australia.
Berne said four different community groups had now provided 20,000kg of food over 15 weeks.
The service had been running once a week out of a church in Melbourne’s north but organisers had planned to wind it back as the economy opened back up and donations dried up.
“We were seeing a decline in the numbers,” said Berne. “Some people that we hadn’t seen in three or four weeks, they called and they said, ‘I lost my job because the restaurant has closed again. I need to get your food basket again.’
“It was really, really, disappointing. Not just for the students but for all of us.”