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International students, temporary visa holders stuck in India protest against Australian border closure

International students, temporary visa holders hold protests in India urging Australian government to allow them to return. Source: Supplied by Luvpreet Singh

Faced with an uncertain future, a group of international students and temporary graduate visa holders currently stranded in India staged a protest in New Delhi and Chandigarh against Australia’s border restrictions that prevent them from entering the country.

A year after Australia closed its borders to temporary migrants, a group of international students and 485 visa holders held a peaceful protest at Jantar Mantar in India’s national capital on 22 March, calling on the Morrison government to assure them of their return.

Videos from the protest show a group of Indian students raising slogans of ‘We Want Justice’ and holding posters seeking immediate return and visa extensions for post-study work visa holders.


Highlights:


Gagandeep Singh is an arts student who lived in Melbourne before he had to travel to India last year. He spearheaded the protest in which people from all over the country participated.

He told SBS Punjabi over the phone from India that the original plan was to protest outside the Australian High Commission in New Delhi, but they weren’t permitted to do so.

“The Delhi police, instead, gave us permission to hold the protest at Jantar Mantar, where over 30 international students gathered and raised slogans against the Australian government’s draconian border restrictions,” he said.

“More students were keen to join but couldn’t because of the lockdown and travel restrictions that have been re-imposed in some states due to the sudden jump in COVID-19 cases,” Mr Singh added.

International students
International student holding a poster during a peaceful protest at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi on 22 March 2021.
Supplied by Gagandeep Singh

The 28-year-old who travelled to New Delhi from the north Indian state of Punjab, said he mobilised support for the demonstration through WhatsApp groups, where hundreds of students and temporary visa holders currently stuck in India have banded together to share their concerns and lend support to those losing heart amidst the uncertainty around their return to Australian shores.

Lead by Mr Singh, the group also submitted a memorandum to the Australian High Commission and India’s Ministry of External Affairs that listed their concerns such as the continued payment of rent and incurring of other overhead expenses in Australia even while they remain stuck in India.

The latest government data reveals that a total of 164,485 student visa holders were outside Australia as on 10 January 2021, of which at least 12,740 were from India.

Last week, Immigration Minister Alex Hawke said that the country is preparing to open its international borders in line with the vaccine rollout but stopped short of providing a timeline.

Immigration Minister says Australia’s reputation as migrant destination not harmed by coronavirus pandemic
Immigration Minister Alex Hawke

Mr Hawke signalled that international students and tourists would be given priority once international borders open.

“We've learnt one thing out of COVID, and that is we absolutely miss the visitors to our economy and temporary visa holders. We want them back as soon as possible," he said.

“That's why the government’s rolling out our vaccination program and preparing for the opening of our international borders, so we can have those important visits from tourists that spend so much money in our country, but also the international student sector, one of our largest export sectors, they value-add so inherently to the Australian economy, we want to get them back,” Minister Hawke added.

International students
International students and temporary graduate visas during a protest in Chandigarh in northern India.
Supplied by Luvpreet Singh

A similar protest was also staged in Chandigarh, the capital city of Punjab and its neighbouring state, Haryana. It saw attendance by over 30 international students and 485 visa holders.

Akshit Bhasin, who was studying motor mechanics from Sydney before he left for India in 2020, also participated in the protest. He said Australia’s “lack of commitment and delay” in providing student return plans could derail their future.

“We have been waiting for the government to announce a timeline for our return to on-campus studies for over a year now. They say positive things about us and our contribution to the Australian society and economy, but no one acts on safeguarding our interests,” the 21-year-old said.

“We gathered in Chandigarh to mobilise support and seek the Indian government’s intervention in the matter so that they can push the Australian authorities to reopen the borders,” he added.

Post-study work visa holder Luvpreet Singh, who also attended the demonstration in Chandigarh, said the government also needs to watch the interest of temporary migrants, many of whom are running out of visas and are at the brink of losing the gains they had made in Australia at huge financial costs.

“We have paid thousands of dollars in fees for our Aussie degrees, and now when it was time to make some return on investment, we have been locked out of the country. The Australian government is not showing any compassion and has repeatedly declined our requests to extend our visas for the time we have spent offshore,” he rued.

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