International student Sara Mejia Munoz and her husband Jaime Gutierrez were loving Brisbane before the coronavirus hit. Photo: Supplied.
International student Sara Mejia Munoz and her husband Jaime Gutierrez were loving Brisbane before the coronavirus hit. Photo: Supplied.

How we’ve failed forgotten pandemic victims

International student Sara Mejia Munoz was planning to complete her Masters degree in Brisbane before returning home to fight human rights issues in poverty-stricken Columbian communities.

Now living with her husband in rental accommodation at Taringa, Mrs Mejia Munoz said the couple would soon be unable to pay their rent.

Their money would run out in just two months, after they had been forced to survive on savings when her husband lost his job about eight weeks ago.

With international borders closed, they are also unable to return home.

Mrs Mejia Munoz is calling on the state and federal governments to escalate financial support for international students who currently have no access to Medicare, rent assistance or Centrelink support.

"We are trying to be okay, but if I hear someone is giving free groceries I will ask for that," Mrs Mejia Munoz said.

International student Sara Mejia Munoz and her husband Jaime Gutierrez hope a relief package to help with their rent is on its way. Photo: Supplied.
International student Sara Mejia Munoz and her husband Jaime Gutierrez hope a relief package to help with their rent is on its way. Photo: Supplied.

She said efforts to obtain support from multicultural services, student services, university support and the state and federal governments to help pay their rent had all led to dead ends.

"Nothing will help us pay our rent," she said.

"We want to keep paying our bills. We want to contribute. I have never experienced what it is like to be so vulnerable."

Mrs Mejia Munoz said international students contributed to the Australian economy through their student fees, her husband had worked before he lost his job due to the coronavirus impacts, she had worked in the semester break and they had both paid tax.

"I just want people to know that we are part of the community, and that we are people who came here with dreams," she said.

"That when they talk about international students they talk about how we are part of the economy - and that's okay, but we are people too and we need help.

"We help the economy and they need to help us because we are part of the community."

Mrs Mejia Munoz said thousands of international students were facing similar heartbreak.

"This is my story, but there are a lot of international students who cannot go home. Our borders are closed. So we need to stay here."

While Mrs Mejia Munoz said she loved living and studying in Brisbane, she now feared being evicted from her rental property.

"We are told when we have zero money, in the future, there might be help available. But we want a solution before that happens," she said.

"We don't want to be homeless. They say in the future, when you are in an emergency situation ... but we are in an emergency situation now."

The 35-year-old said a scholarship she had been granted for her Masters of Development was contingent on her completing the degree, and it did not cover anything other than her tuition costs.

"We have no income," she said.

"We have no help from our own government because we are not there; and we are not citizens here so we cannot get help here."

She said efforts to get a rent reduction of 20 per cent from her property owner had not been successful.

"The owner just said no," she said.

"We want to keep paying our rent, we just needed a small reduction."

State MP Michael Berkman (Maiwar) said that with more than half a million international students in Australia - "and likely a thousand or more in my electorate" - he held grave concerns about their wellbeing.

State MP Michael Berkman (Maiwar) says international students support many westside jobs. Picture: Tara Croser.
State MP Michael Berkman (Maiwar) says international students support many westside jobs. Picture: Tara Croser.

"Australia and Queensland are failing them. They have no access to Centrelink, JobKeeper or Medicare," he said.

"International students support many westside jobs in universities, especially as federal cuts to universities have left them reliant on income from overseas.

"These students have contributed a huge amount to our community as scholars, workers and neighbours.

"Just like many other westside locals, I'm really worried for our friends on student and working visas.

"The Federal LNP must immediately extend JobSeeker, JobKeeper and Medicare to everyone in Australia regardless of visa status.

"Scott Morrison has told international students to go home, but flights are cancelled and many borders in transit stops like Singapore are closed.

"I can't imagine what I'd be doing if my kids were in this situation."

Federal MP Trevor Evans (Brisbane) described higher education as "Brisbane's biggest export industry".

"We need to do our best to support the large number of international students studying here in Brisbane," he said.

"There has always been an expectation that temporary visa holders are able to support themselves while in Australia.

"As such, international students are encouraged to rely on family support, part-time work where available and their own savings to sustain themselves in Australia."

Federal MP Trevor Evans (Brisbane) says international students are encouraged to sustain themselves in Australia. Picture: Supplied.
Federal MP Trevor Evans (Brisbane) says international students are encouraged to sustain themselves in Australia. Picture: Supplied.

Mr Evans said international students who had been in Australia longer than 12 months, who found themselves in financial hardship, would now be able to access their Australian superannuation.

He said that in the Higher Education Relief Package, international students also had access to regulatory fee relief.

"As a result, many universities have announced care packages to support international students facing hardship, and the Government will continue to engage with the international education sector to deal with assisting those students facing hardship," he said.

Originally published as How we've failed forgotten pandemic victims



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