Virus causes Chinese students to try ‘back door entry’

Fears of the coronavirus have forced students from China enrolled in Australian universities to try overcoming a ban on them returning to class in February by first travelling to and staying over in a third country.

Nearly 520,000 foreign students are studying in Australian universities, colleges and schools with 140,000 from China enrolled in higher education.

As a result of the latest virus outbreak, however, all schools, universities and colleges have been shut. What restrictions the government may apply to foreign student numbers when the current medical crisis is over is not yet known.

The money that Chinese students spend in Australia on study fees and living expenses amounts to an estimated AU$8 billion (US$4.7 billion) each year.

Most students, however, were left stranded by a travel ban imposed by the Australian government last month on all travellers arriving from China. The government had acted in an effort to try to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

One option popular among some of the stranded students was to avoid the ban by entering Australia from another country after spending 14 days outside China. That is, if they could afford the fares and cost of staying over in another country.

Avoiding the ban

Last month, the South China Morning Post reported the case of Tony Yan, an international student at the Australian National University who arrived in Australia from China’s Jiangsu province.

Yan, the report said, was not about to “let anything get in the way of his studies”.

So when the Australian government announced a ban on travellers arriving from China in response to the coronavirus outbreak, Yan opted against deferral and instead found a legitimate way around the ban via an extended holiday in Japan.

On 8 February, the mathematics undergraduate went to Tokyo to circumvent the restrictions declaring: “I’m here just like any other tourist, ticking off the must-see list. No quarantine, no face masks, no racism, unlike Australia.”

After spending a fortnight away from China, Yan then flew to Sydney and was admitted for the start of the academic year on 24 February.

Bangkok another option

Allie Liu, a student from Guangzhou, opted to fly to Bangkok to take a two-week break before returning to the Australian National University to continue studying for her bachelor of science degree.

“Although I have lots of high school friends here [in Bangkok] and it is quite a popular destination for Chinese people, I am not enjoying it as much as I should be on a holiday,” Liu said.

“This is mainly because there’s so much confusion going around from the Australian government itself.”

The confusion arose because of conflicting notices from different government departments: The Department of Home Affairs issued a notice early in February saying entry to Australia would be denied “to anyone who has been in mainland China in the last 14 days”.

That included the majority of travellers who happen to live in China. But the Department of Education, Skills and Employment then put out another ‘advisory’ saying that Chinese students who had spent at least 14 days outside China “may” then be able to enter Australia.

In response to the concerns of the Chinese, Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison then posted a message on the Chinese social media platform WeChat advising that students with valid visas would only be turned away if they had been to mainland China since 1 February.

This set of mixed messages led to widespread criticism of Morrison, although Liu said she understood the government’s decision to restrict travel.

“But I was angry that the ban had been introduced without any warning, amid conflicting messages about how it would be applied,” she said.

“I have friends who arrived in Australia on that day and got their visa cancelled and deported,” she said.

“Yet they were on the plane when this was announced! Having no time for the students to react leads to another big problem – our academic progress.”

Liu said it seemed the Australian government was treating foreign students “like someone who is a cash bank, not students who contributed so much to their universities academically and socially”.

This story was corrected on 23 March to change the figure for the number of Chinese students enrolled to 140,000.