International student Carla Lyu had her bags packed and was about to leave for Guangzhou airport when she heard all flights from China to Australia had been cancelled.
- Carla Lyu has been separated from her husband in Adelaide for more than 12 months
- She was left stuck in southern China when Australia closed its borders
- The final-year University of Adelaide student is now petitioning the government
It was February 1 last year, and as officials in Australia frantically worked to contain the spread of coronavirus by closing the border that day, many people like Ms Lyu were left wondering how to get home.
Now, more than 12 months have passed, and Ms Lyu is still in southern China desperately trying to find a way to return to Adelaide to her husband and dogs.
“I was shocked by the immediate ban,” she said.
“I was still hopeful during the first few months that the travel restrictions would be lifted, since the virus was under control here in China.
As one of the thousands of international students displaced by Australia’s border closures, the final-year University of Adelaide masters student now also faces the prospect of attempting to finish her degree online.
Ms Lyu tried to return to Adelaide several times, and even registered for the pilot program announced by the South Australian government that would bring 300 international students back to the state.
But those plans were scuppered by the state’s lockdown late last year.
Ms Lyu said the constant dead-ends led her to create a petition to the federal government.
“New Zealand has allowed immediate families of temporary visa holders to enter since June 2020.”
Her prolonged absence has negatively impacted her husband’s mental health — he has had to reduce his study load at university and is receiving ongoing medical support.
‘We need a plan’
With no clear way forward, Council of International Students Australia national president Belle Lim is calling on the federal government to design and publicly communicate a roadmap for students to return to face-to-face study.
“It’s a complicated situation and we need a plan to decide who comes back first as there are different levels of need,” Ms Lim said.
“There is an obligation for the government to do something.”
Ms Lim said there was a general lack of understanding among the Australian public about the contribution international students made to the Australian economy, and asked Australians to be sympathetic when considering the personal impact the pandemic was having on students.
In many cases, she said, mental health support was not available in their home countries.
“It is a huge investment for them to come to Australia and there is a lot of pressure on students in normal times to succeed,” she said.
“Online learning cannot replace face-to-face learning. Many courses have a practical component that can’t be replicated online.”
‘Difficult time for students’
The Northern Territory is the only jurisdiction in Australia to have followed through with its promise to bring international students to Australia, flying in 63 students to Darwin in November last year.
A South Australian government spokesman said work was underway to get international students back to the state “as soon as possible”.
“This includes options for further flights, including commercial and charter flights, as well as the possibility of additional quarantine measures,” the spokesman said.
Study Adelaide, a state government and university-funded organisation that markets the state to international students, said all of the stakeholders were working to get the pilot program off the ground.
Plans involve using existing medi-hotels for mandatory two-week quarantine — a complicating factor when there are still Australian citizens trying to get home.
StudyAdelaide chief executive Karyn Kent said that students were still enrolling to study online, and some had remained in the state throughout the pandemic and were being supported.
A spokeswoman for the federal Education Department said international students would be welcomed back to Australia “when conditions allow”.
“In November 2020, all states and territories were invited to submit Student Arrivals Plans for the broader return of international students.
“All jurisdictions are working on student arrival plans, but no final plans have been shared with the Commonwealth.”