Stranger in an unstrange land

By Shona Young.

It’s 12:45 in Sydney’s CBD and in the midst of corporate lunch breaks and midday engagements, Saaya and I order two coffees. It’s a relatively mundane situation – two friends from high school in a casual catch up but while we sit and wait for our cups of caffeine, amidst black suits and ties, Saaya begins to share her story.

“It’s really hitting me… I’m living with a tourist visa in my own home,” she says.

As a Japanese-born and Australian-raised university graduate, Saaya Haga has just been hit with the inevitable crisis that awaits Student Visa holders at the end of their degree. These temporary permits allow foreign citizens to stay in a country for the duration of study at any Australian educational institution and are brilliant opportunities for international students.

As reported by the Department of Education, there are 494, 625 full-fee paying international students currently enrolled across the nation – a 12% increase from the previous year. Likewise, for the past two decades the international student market has contributed significantly to the economy, generating an estimated $15 billion a year. This lucrative industry comprises Australia’s 4th largest services sector, the largest source of export revenue for Victoria and the second largest for NSW.

Migration is something that is embedded in the Australian story, with new structural adjustments introduced and restrictions relaxed over the years. The pathways for international students to study, work and stay in Australia appears, on the surface at least, to be broadening.

But for Saaya, this isn’t the reality.

The temporary graduate visa, commonly known as the Subclass 485 Visa, promises a four year extension only to students who were granted their first visa on or after November 5th 2011 or have graduated from a skilled occupation course such as engineering or nursing. Those caught in the gap before the November 5th cut off have a different migration story to tell – a narrative riddled with trauma and uncertainty.

Saaya arrived in Australia, in 2006 with her older sister, younger brother and mother. “The first few years were really tough; some people couldn’t understand my English and that became my biggest insecurity,” she says whilst recalling her early years.

Before following her mum to Australia, she had no desire to settle in her new home. “It’s only when I made friends, I started feeling more Australian and I started to become more ambitious about my future in Australia,” she shares.

Saaya begins to slow down at the mention of her future, and fixates her attention on the remnants of the latte in front of her. It’s a sensitive topic and we take a moment to comment on other areas of our lives but we probe closer to the dreaded question, “What’s next?”

A few minutes pass and as we reflect on the successes of our friends that are blatant on our news feeds, Saaya continues. “I always thought that I would be one of them. It’s tough seeing my friends without problems. I felt like I was being left behind and to get to the same place in life as others, I felt I had to work harder just to get to the same level.”

I felt a pang of guilt. The past two months have been self-focused as I tossed up potential cadetships or additional courses to pursue without once questioning my legal status as a citizen, and if I ever left Australia it would be out of my own free will – when and if I choose. But these same opportunities are not available to Saaya, a fellow Australian.

After her final subject last semester, Saaya’s student visa had reached its expiration date and, having just missed the November 2011 cut off, she packed her bags for Japan, her imposed home. Saaya was expected to follow her sister’s footsteps and pursue a career in Japan in the hopes of raising sponsorship and funds to return to Australia later in life.

But it took countless, strenuous job interviews and applications for Saaya to grow confident and assured in one main thing: She was an Australian.

“When I went to Japan, I felt like a tourist and I learnt how Australian I really am,” she admits. Saaya packed her bags for a second time and returned home, on a three month tourist visa to weigh her future options. “I had to come back on a tourist visa, this is where I call home and there’s nothing harder than getting kicked out of my own country. Australia is my home,” she declares.

As we leave the cafe, I catch a snippet of the conversation behind me and unsurprisingly, two business men discuss stocks while our fellow Australians on the other side of the cafe enjoy casual chatter and occasionally share laughter. It’s a picturesque scene of Sydney’s cafe culture but with Saaya’s story of inequality ringing in my mind, the incongruence is too much to comprehend.

“It’s because I wasn’t born in this country…” she regrets.

Instead of planning a post graduation trip around Europe like many of her peers, Saaya’s mind is overwhelmed by the options that lay in front of her – She could invest two years applying for a de facto status with her Australian boyfriend but the uncertainties of any relationship imposes an additional layer of risk for Saaya. Alternatively she could compete with experienced professionals for sponsorship, or pay for another full priced degree in a skilled occupation while giving up her passion for marketing – all in the hopes of one day being recognised as something she is.

Saaya’s story is not unique and the complex intersection of race, migration, economy and national identity is familiar to many international students aspiring to the Australian dream. But the way is fraught with uncertainty and costly confusion, and the barriers into our lucky country seem more impregnable than ever.