'You feel very isolated': International students warn livelihoods at risk without welfare safety net

There are calls to extend welfare support to international students amid the COVID-19 outbreak, as many see their livelihoods threatened by the virus.

There are a calls for a national fund to support international students.

There are a calls for a national fund to support international students. Source: AAP

International students whose livelihoods have been threatened by the outbreak of COVID-19 have warned of their financial vulnerability without access to welfare support. 

There are hundreds of thousands of foreign students studying in Australia who contribute some $30 billion each year to the economy through university fees and tax payments. 

But many now face the prospect of struggling to pay their bills as social distancing measures shut down industries and trigger mass job losses to casual workforces.

Twenty-five-year-old Yalvin Nuckecheddy, a student at Charles Darwin University in the Northern Territory, has already found himself a casualty of the economic downturn.

"COVID-19 is unprecedented - nobody could plan for it," he told SBS News.  

"This is a situation affecting every single individual on the planet. If I can't find work and my parents can't send me money - I will find my savings depleted."

Greens Senator Mehreen Faruqi has written to the Federal Government to urge them to immediately extend income support to international students. 

This includes calling for them to gain access to a new $550 a fortnight coronavirus supplement introduced as part of stimulus measures. 

"I've been hearing incredibly concerning stories from students, their unions and concerned university staff about students who are extremely anxious about not being able to pay rent or bills," she told SBS News. 

"Despite facing the same hardships as other students on top of being far from home, international students are not eligible for income support payments and haven't been included in the government's coronavirus package."

This comes after the Federal Government extended the coronavirus supplement so it could be accessed by more than 230,000 full-time students through Youth Allowance, Austudy and Abstudy recipients.

International students are ineligible for all of these payments and have told SBS News they are now confused about what support, if any, they are entitled to if they find themselves suffering financial hardship.

Mr Nuckecheddy, a native of Mauritius, said his cleaning shifts for private house owners and offices have dried up since the pandemic took hold.

"Whatever country you're in, you should be getting some help to survive," he said. 

The National Union of Students and Council of International Students Australia have both pressed the government to do more to support foreign students through extending welfare support.

International students told SBS News there is an incorrect perception they simply rely on parents to bankroll their living and study expenses abroad. 

Indian national Varun Kale, a masters student at Melbourne's Swinburne University of Technology, had worked in door-to-door marketing before the COVID-19 pandemic struck.  

"Of course our parents are there to help us out, but how long should we take money from them?" he said. 

"How do we pay those bills? How do we pay the rent?"

International student Varun Kale.
International student Varun Kale. Source: Supplied

Twenty-three-year-old Jeet Mukherjee, who studies engineering at a regional university in Queensland, has also seen his working hours reduced because of the virus. 

He said the government should consider extending welfare support to international students given their contribution to the Australian economy.

"I am very much worried about my personal situation," he said. 

"[But] we are also affected with our families who are back home.

"This is not only an Australian problem - but a global problem."

The national coronavirus death toll in Australia has jumped to 88.
The national coronavirus death toll in Australia has jumped to 88. Source: Getty

The Federal Government has extended the hours international students can work in some sectors - with extensions given to the major supermarkets and nurses in aged care facilities. 

A 40 hour per fortnight cap has been removed to help fill critical shortages in the vital industries. 

But when questioned about what access international students have to welfare support, a spokesperson for the Department of Social Services declined to directly address the matter. 

"Under the package which passed Parliament … the government has waived the Newly Arrived Resident Waiting Period," the spokesperson said. 

"This means migrants who are permanent residents will temporarily be able to access income support payments sooner in the wake of the coronavirus economic downturn.

"Welfare assistance may be available to some other temporary visa holders if they face significant financial hardship under the special benefit payment"

The Federal Government's total economic rescue package has now reached $189 billion, the equivalent of almost 10 per cent of Australia's GDP.

Twenty-one-year-old Nayonika Bhattacharya, a student at Sydney's University of New South Wales, said she's also seen her retail hours "significantly cut".

Ms Bhattacharya said the uncertainty of the situation has taken an emotional toll - one she's been forced to experience far from her family in Oman.

“It's just very scary because you don't have a support system," she told SBS News. 

"It's a roller coaster that everyone is going through - you feel very isolated."

Australians must stay at least 1.5 metres away from other people. Indoors, there must be a density of no more than one person per four square metres of floor space.

If you believe you may have contracted the virus, call your doctor (don’t visit) or contact the national Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.

If you are struggling to breathe or experiencing a medical emergency, call 000.

SBS is committed to informing Australia’s diverse communities about the latest COVID-19 developments. News and information is available in 63 languages at

5 min read
Published 25 March 2020 at 8:23pm
By Tom Stayner