20 April 2020

COVID-19 doesn't discriminate and neither should we: why foreign students and visa holders deserve support

| Mainul Haque
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Mainul Haque and Dame Annette King

Mainul Haque at the Gungahlin Mosque last year with New Zealand High Commissioner Dame Annette King. Photo: Genevieve Jacobs.

At a time when our community is grappling with an unprecedented crisis, the Federal Government’s decision to exclude nearly one million international students and temporary visa holders from the otherwise commendable stimulus package is unjust.

It reeks of the protectionism, parochialism and lack of empathy that has characterised the worst parts of our polity’s response to multiculturalism.

Yet where the Federal Government’s response has failed, the ACT Government can take this opportunity to demonstrate real leadership by urging the Federal Government to provide financial support to the 14,000 foreign students who have chosen our beautiful bush capital to complete their higher education.

These students bring immense socio-economic benefits to our local community and economy. They are critical to the research and innovation sector that is making Canberra the renewables hub of Australia. They bring a diversity of views, cultures and tastes that make the social fabric of Canberra so special.

Yet these same members of our community are largely unable to return home due to travel bans, unable to work but are expected to somehow get through this pandemic. Without government support, many risk homelessness. To prevent this many are likely to work out of desperation – even if they suspect they are infected and may spread the virus.

We need to ask ourselves if we are comfortable with this empathy deficit, and whether we should deny members of our Canberra community much-needed support because they lack a particular passport.

International students and temporary visa holders are also playing a key role in protecting our community from harm during the COVID-19 crisis.

In an SBS interview on 15 April 2020, the Prime Minister acknowledged “Asian migrants led the way during Australia’s response to the coronavirus crisis. It was the Chinese-Australian community that actually protected Australia. They led the way and the broader community is now following”.

Sadly these are empty words unless backed with action. The ACT Government should take the opportunity to show national leadership by publicly declaring that international students and temporary visa holders form a key part of our community and deserve support during this unprecedented time.

I would like to see the ACT Government work with National Cabinet and the Commonwealth Government to urgently provide the much-needed support to the temporary visa holders. Some of the measures could include:

  • Providing temporary employment opportunities to students, refugees and bridging visa holders for the next six months
  • Extending the $550 fortnightly Job Seeker payment for each adult temporary visa holder for the next six months
  • Ensuring basic healthcare facilities, including the COVID-19 testing and vaccine, are accessible to all visa holders including students, refugees and bridging visa holders
  • Publicly clarify that international students and temporary visa holders who have lost employment are eligible for ACT Government rental support, and publicise it in various languages to ensure community awareness and accessibility of this program.

The ACT Government has the chance to lead the way. We should show the rest of the country what an empathetic government response looks like – one that recognises the critical role foreign students and temporary visa holders play in our community and our economy.

Coronavirus does not discriminate by visa status. Nor should we.

Mainul Haque is the former President of the Canberra Muslim Community Inc, Gungahlin Mosque and Bangladesh Australia Association Canberra. Mainul is a steering committee member of the Canberra Refugee Action Campaign and will stand for the ACT Greens in Yerrabi.

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It had always been the onus of foreign governments to assist their citizens overseas, whether it be urgent welfare assistance or mercy flights.


They were told to go home. If they didn’t listen, that’s their problem.

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