Australia

International students in NSW are being given access to free legal advice

There are 264,000 international students currently studying in NSW, including Ricardo Moyano. Source: Supplied

A new app is offering international students information about their legal rights when it comes to employment, housing, education and sexual assault.

When Ricardo Moyano moved from Mexico City to Sydney, it took him a while to adjust. 

"There are rules for everything," the 30-year-old international student told SBS News.

"That was something that I found really interesting because I came from a country where even with the rules that exist, people sometimes don't follow them."

"So when I came here I was obviously trying to follow all the rules and the things I needed to do as an international student, as someone on a visa, someone with restrictions."

Ricardo Moyano and a local resident.
Ricardo Moyano and a local resident.
Supplied

Looking for work was particularly tricky for Ricardo, who is studying a Master of Biotechnology and Business at Macquarie University.

He cited TFNs (Tax File Numbers) and ABNs (Australian Business Numbers) as some of the confusing elements.

"As a foreigner, you have to put all these pieces together and hope that you are not missing anything," he said. 

And Mr Moyano is not alone. Many international students in Australia have gaps in their legal knowledge of the country they temporarily call home.

As a result, the NSW government has partnered with Redfern Legal Centre to create a new mobile app to address these gaps, called My Legal Mate.

The app offers free legal advice to international students in English, Chinese, Hindi, Korean, Portuguese, Thai, and Vietnamese, courtesy of more than 3,000 videos.

It focuses on four key areas: employment, housing, disputes with education providers, and sexual assault.

My Legal Mate
The app offers advice on four key areas in several languages.
My Legal Mate

The app is offered to education providers on an annual subscription basis, allowing students to access the information free-of-charge.

It was first offered to students at Macquarie University in October with the hope that more universities and students will sign up.  

Students
International students have been victims of exploitation.
Getty

My Legal Mate was the brain-child of Redfern Legal Centre's Sean Stimson. 

"Many international students lack detailed knowledge about Australian law or may simply not know where to seek help," he said. 

"By breaking down complex legal information into easy to understand 'bite-sized' support pathways, My Legal Mate enhances the safety and wellbeing of international students." 

Open to exploitation

Rudrapriya Ravichandran is a 26-year-old international student from Sri Lanka, studying a Master of Commerce with a specialisation in marketing at Macquarie University.

Rudrapriya came to study in Australia, "to see a different world, to see a multicultural environment" and to enjoy Sydney's weather.

She said a lack of legal literacy among new international students can leave them open to exploitation.

"Obviously we don't have the privileges of permanent residents or citizens, so most of us come here with the mindset that maybe we don't have the same laws [protecting us] that everyone has."

"There have been cases which we've all read about, where people take advantage of the international workforce."

Rudrapriya Ravichandran is using the My Legal Mate app.
Rudrapriya Ravichandran is using the My Legal Mate app.
Supplied

A study released on Wednesday by the University of New South Wales and the University of Sydney found more than half of international students surveyed were being exploited by landlords. 

Those living in shared housing were most likely to be victims of exploitative practices such as having their rent almost doubled during an exam period. Others were tricked into paying for accommodation that didn't exist, faced intimidation or harassment and unfair eviction, the study found. 

Rudrapriya said she knew of "people who rent or sign tenancy agreements and may not know where they stand".

She has been using the My Legal Mate app and said it has "supported our transition ... and better enhanced our learning journey in Australia".  

NSW Deputy Premier and Minister for Trade John Barilaro told SBS News the app was an Australian-first.

"For the 264,000 international students currently studying NSW, this is another step in making the experience as rewarding and as safe as possible," he said.

"My Legal Mate gives international students 24-hour access to legal advice - something which has never been offered before."

According to the NSW government, international education is the state's second-largest export and was worth over $13 billion in 2018.

Macquarie University students can access the My Legal Mate app here

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au

Stay up to date with SBS NEWS

  • App
  • Subscribe
  • Follow
  • Listen
  • Watch