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International Students Hung Out to Dry

Samantha Jonscher and Joanna Connolly on what it means when frontline services take a hit.

After working three shifts—just over 20 hours—in a Sydney restaurant, Taoking was let go with little explanation and no pay. The business owed him $450 and didn’t plan on paying him. Age 24, Taoking is an international student from Hefei, China, in his first year of a bachelor of Information Technology at the University of Sydney.

“I called the supervisor to ask about my pay and my further shifts, but they just complained about all of the mistakes I had made. They refused to talk about paying me or about any further work.”

New to the country, Taoking had nowhere obvious to turn for help. First he went to the University of Sydney Union, who sent him to SUPRA, who then directed him to the Redfern Legal Centre’s International Student legal advice service. In less than a week after seeking out help from the legal centre, Taoking received his back pay. He now works at the fish market.

“Without the legal service, I just wouldn’t have gotten my pay. I was living off my savings and I needed that money to pay rent and my living costs. My only other option was to ask my family for support. I was so upset, depressed. I felt helpless”, Taoking said. 

In August of this year it was announced that the International Student legal advice service would be closed as a result of funding cuts. The service, the first of its kind, was opened in 2011 to help Sydney’s 40 000 international students. Since then it has offered free legal advice to hundreds of students like Taoking, helping with everything from generalist legal problems—employment, tenancy and domestic violence issues—to managing disputes with specific education providers, which place student visas at risk. “International students are at heightened risk of exploitation due to a lack of knowledge about Australia’s laws and protections and an inability through their circumstances, such as financial or language barriers, to access help,” explained CEO of the Redfern Legal Centre Joanna Shulman. “As a result, we see many international students preyed upon.”

One of the most common problems facing clients is accommodation. “A typical issue systemically facing students is over crowding. There could be a three bedroom place with 12 or 18 people in there, or two bedroom with 8 or 10 people,” Nick Ngai (RLC’s international student solicitor) explained to Honi earlier this year. Often housing is organised before students arrive in Australia. They pay large sums of money and arrive to over crowded substandard accommodation. Many are not technically legal tenants of the property so their rights are a little hazy. When landlords refuse to return security deposits or bonds, students can be unsure what to do.

Ngai also pointed to complaints about universities as a key aspect of flagship program. Student visas often demand students meet certain academic and attendance requirements. Yet if things happen—Ngai cited employment problems, accidents, crime, relationship breakdowns as common examples—a student’s attendance can drop, triggering problems with visa compliance. Enrolment can be cancelled if students don’t show cause to their universities, a tricky situation for a student already unsure of their rights.

“We receive the tail end, where students have been found not to have complied. Their enrolment has often already been cancelled,” Ngai told Honi. Insensitive to the specific issues facing international students, few other centres offer this assistance. Without RLC’s tailored assistance, it’s unclear what will fill the gap.

Community legal centres like the one in Redfern provide desperately needed assistance to the most vulnerable in the community. They’re the triage of the legal world—a vital first resource for individuals to turn to before their problems become entrenched. Yet they have been defunded since the Abbott Government’s election.

Axing international student services is a particular kind of offence. International students represent six billion dollars in annual economic benefits to the New South Wales economy. Last year Sydney was named the most popular destination in the world for international students. At this University alone they represent 23% of enrolments and pay substantially higher fees. However, there is remarkably little support once they make the decision to enrol in a domestic institution. They aren’t entitled to HELP loans, youth allowance, Austudy, medicare or concession travel, and from late-September onwards, will no longer have access to free legal advice, specific to their needs.