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International students lash out after long-awaited Australian travel plans cancelled again

Chinese international student Zhang Yiming was finally supposed to leave for Australia this morning – 16 months after starting his undergraduate law studies at Newcastle University.

Instead, he has now had to cancel his $1,000 ticket from the northern Chinese city of Harbin.

The federal government announced Monday that in light of the emergence of the Omicron variant, the planned easing of border restrictions for international students and other eligible visa holders will be delayed until at least December 15.

The decision has left many international students looking forward to their long-delayed arrival in Australia in doubt and confusion.

It is also likely to further damage Australia’s reputation as an education destination, experts say.

Mr. Zhang, who said he refused an internship at one of Shanghai’s most prestigious law firms because of his now-delayed flight, had his flight canceled just 12 hours before departure.

“The decision is extremely irresponsible for temporary visa holders, who are left without any time to prepare and respond to the urgent announcement,” the 28-year-old told ABC.

International students whose studies have been interrupted due to COVID are feeling deflated after news of another delay due to the new Omicron variant.(AAP: Joel Carrett)

The New South Wales government announced on Tuesday that despite the federal government’s delay in easing restrictions at the border, it will continue its pilot program to charter two flights with 250 vaccinated international students.

When flights land in Sydney on December 6 and 24, students will undergo strict new quarantine measures that have been introduced over the past few days.

Unfortunately for Mr. Zhang and many others, privately arranged travel plans are still up in the air.

Samoa student Jolie Eti smiles at the camera while holding bouquets of flowers.
Julie Etty was awarded a scholarship through the Australia Awards Program and was due to begin her undergraduate studies in Melbourne this year.


News of the temporary suspension of access has dashed the hopes of students across the Pacific who are anxiously awaiting the start of their studies in Australia.

After postponing her studies this year, Samoan student Julie Etty was hoping 2022 would be her year to finally start her studies in Melbourne.

The 18-year-old was awarded a scholarship through the Australia Awards Program and was upbeat after receiving an email last week that the borders would open on December 1.

“It was really devastating,” Etty said. “It gave me hope that we might actually be able to come.”

Australia’s reputation is further tarnished

Kirk Yan, a Melbourne-based immigration agent and advocate for international students and temporary residents of Australia, told the ABC that the announcement would further erode confidence in Australian border policies.

“Other popular study destinations such as Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States, which opened their borders to international students before Australia, have not closed their borders because of Omicron,” Yan said.

Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson said the universities will continue to work closely with federal, state and territory governments to do everything possible to assist international students seeking to return to Australia as soon as it is safe to do so.

“There are still around 130,000 students in higher education outside Australia, eager to return in time for the first semester next year,” she said.

“We understand that this delay is challenging for students and universities. It is important to acknowledge the incredible resilience of those who have patiently waited up to two years to resume their studies on campus.”

Uncertainty affects mental health

Andina Dwivatma is another one of those stranded abroad.

She was doing her PhD from Jakarta, and two weeks ago she had received several emails inviting her to return to Australia.

“The latest advice I received said there would be no more hotel quarantines once Australia reached 90 per cent [vaccination rate]She said.

“However, since the Omicron variant came out there has been no update,” she said, adding that travel restrictions may affect her plan to return to Melbourne early next year.

Woman wearing glasses smiling at the camera
Andina Dwifatma says she has already made a plan to come to Australia to pursue her PhD at Monash University early next year.(supplied)

Dwivatma said she understands the travel restrictions in Australia, but it has affected her mental health “severely”.

She added that if Australia reimposed quarantine rules on international travelers, her university scholarship would not cover that.

“Reopening Australia’s borders to international students does not mean that everyone can afford all the costs,” she said.

ruthless response

Bill W.X Lim, an international student from Malaysia in Melbourne, said she understood the need to change travel policies, but felt there was a “lack of appreciation and recognition” for holders of temporary Australian visas, as international students like her.

“It’s a very ruthless response,” said Ms Lim, former chair of the Council of Overseas Students of Australia, adding that she hoped to see more support from the Australian government.

“These students paid $40,000 in tuition fees, not including the rent they paid, their property here…and now they’re stuck abroad for two years,” she said.

Young woman in work shirt smiling as she poses for professional profile picture.
Ms Lim, former chair of the International Student Council of Australia, says the federal government should provide more support. (supplied)

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the temporary suspension was made on the basis of expert medical advice.

The NSC statement said it would “ensure Australia is gathering the information we need to better understand the Omicron variant.”

Education Secretary Alan Tudge told ABC that given the high vaccination rates, he hopes the moratorium will be lifted on December 15, as planned.

“I know this will be disappointing for some students looking to come to Australia, but it’s just a pause,” he said.

“We have one of the most vaccinated populations in the world and this puts Australia in a very good position. The government will continue to monitor the situation as it evolves in accordance with public health advice.”

One of the lucky ones

After nearly two years waiting for borders to reopen, University of Technology Sydney student Mario Johan Hartono woke up to the news about the pilot program taking place this afternoon and couldn’t contain his excitement.

“I’m very excited, especially after considering the possible worst-case scenarios of canceling the plan and how we won’t get our money back if that happens,” he told ABC.

“I feel that UTS has been very supportive in helping international students return to Australia. But up to this point, I still wanted to keep my expectations low after so many failed attempts to go to Australia in the past.”

Mr. Hartono is among 250 international students from over 15 countries who will travel on the first chartered aircraft under the NSW International Student Pilot Scheme.

Mario Johan Hartono standing in front of the Sydney Opera House.
Mario Johan Harton is among 250 international students who will still be able to enter Australia through the NSW state pilot programme, although arrivals have been suspended. (supplied)

Mr. Hartono received an email from UTS in October about how he had been selected to be part of the trial plan and was asked to pay about $2,000 to secure his place.

He said he would have access to an airport shuttle and free accommodation in Sydney for two weeks.

Under the new border rules, all international arrivals must spend 72 hours in isolation in their homes or places of residence after landing in Australia.

International students entering NSW will be quarantined at a Sydney student accommodation facility for three days.

Although he is excited that he can still make it to Sydney in the coming weeks, Mr Hartono said he was “deeply sorry to hear the news about other international students who are not in the programme”.

“Some of them must have booked flights just to hear the terrible news. I feel sympathy for them.”

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