Foreign workers who are stranded in Australia without work or access to Centrelink are urging the government to help them survive the coronavirus pandemic.
Spanish bartender Ella Vázquez told 10 daily she’s just lost her job and is at risk of sleeping rough on the streets of Melbourne.
Vázquez says she has $200 left in her bank account after spending her savings on a flight home that has now been cancelled.
“I went to the Spanish embassy and after waiting in line for three hours, their only recommendation was to book a flight home. Considering I’d just lost my job and was freaking out, I bought a flight home for March 31,” Vázquez said.
“The flight was cancelled two days after I bought a ticket. I’m stuck here and have only paid rent for the next two weeks,” she said.
As a former freelance journalist, Vázquez says she’s used to surviving paycheck to paycheck and waiting long periods to get paid, but she’s never been so worried about how she’ll survive.
“I think the Australian government should help us the same way they are helping Australians. If the government could just freeze rent I could survive,” Vázquez said.
“I’ve been paying taxes here for 14 months and I’ve been working really hard. Most of the time I’ve been working two jobs. I have more than $2,000 in my super account and I think it’s beyond insane that I cannot access it.”
International student Jana Mee is also whittling away at her savings while trying to find a new job.
The German tourism student says she’s been confronted with a great deal of racism while looking for work.
Although she’s lived in Australia for five years while studying and working, Mee says she’s been turned away by employers who say they’re only hiring Australian citizens.
“I’m not here on a holiday, I’m here because I’m studying and now I’ve lost my job. Now when I apply for a job they’re asking me ‘are you an Australian citizen?’” Mee said.
“I need to buy groceries, I need to pay college fees. I’m a hard worker. I’ll scrub toilets if I have to, I don’t care,” she said.
“Non-Australians are the ones who struggle the most because we don’t get any support from Centrelink and even now when we want to work, there are no jobs.”
With flights being either limited or exorbitantly expensive due to the coronavirus outbreak, flying home is not an option for many foreign workers and students.
Mee forked out $1,500 on a flight home to Germany two weeks ago. The flight has since been cancelled, and she has not been given a refund.
She’s now down to her last thousand dollars and says she feels abandoned by both the German and Australian governments.
“Just because I’m not an Australian citizen doesn’t mean I’m less worthy. I’ve paid my taxes. I’ve paid over $20,000 for my education here,” she said.
“International students bring $32 billion to the Australian economy every single year and pay so many fees, and now we’re not getting any support.”
“My dad is not working because he’s sick and my mum is about to lose her job as well. It’s just a nightmare.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced on Sunday states and territories will ban landlords from evicting renters who are impacted by the coronavirus for six months.
However, Centrelink payments such as the JobSeeker Payment, Youth Allowance and Austudy are only available to Australian citizens and permanent residents.
A spokesperson at the Department of Social Services told 10 daily the Special Benefit payment may be available for some temporary visa holders who face significant hardship.
“Special Benefit is paid at the JobSeeker Payment rate and recipients will be eligible for the Coronavirus supplement of $550,” the spokesperson said.
“Yesterday the Prime Minister announced a $200 million boost to community services which will expand support to vulnerable people including assistance for paying bills and buying other essentials such as food, clothing and petrol.
“There are no residency restrictions to access existing or expanded emergency relief services.”
Immigration Affairs Minister Alan Tudge said in March that no new temporary visa holders will be allowed to enter Australia but essential workers will be provided “flexibility” regarding their visas.
“For those people who have visas expiring very soon, yes, call the Immigration Department or certainly let them know. You will be able to apply for a further visa and we certainly are taking into account the coronavirus circumstances,” he said.
Social Services Shadow Minister Linda Burney told 10 daily the government must ensure all people in Australia – irrespective of their visa status – are able to access healthcare and other support to self-isolate.
“It is critical to the health of all Australians that we make sure people can get testing and afford to self-isolate and get medical care if required,” Burney said in a statement to 10 daily.
The virus doesn’t check people’s visa status
“We do not want to see the perverse predicament where temporary visa holders who lose work because of coronavirus are unable to get tested, can’t afford to self-isolate, get pushed into high risk situations or become destitute,” she said.
Aside from the lack of financial support, many backpackers say they have nowhere to go as hostels and campgrounds are rapidly closing over COVID-19 fears.
Dutch backpacker Laura Nieuwenhuis told 10 daily her Adelaide hostel woke up about 90 people on Friday morning and put them out on the street.
“I’m lucky that I know someone here and could call them in an emergency but I know some people from the hostel lost their jobs have no savings,” she said.
German traveller Corinna Seitz says she’s been stuck in a camper van in Exmouth, north of Perth, for a week after the government announced it was shutting its borders.
She says she and her Australian partner, who are living in their van, have been turned away from several caravan parks and camping grounds.
“We started to panic when the road to Coral Bay was closed. The government didn’t really give us any notice or information,” she said.
“Even now there’s no information at all, most campgrounds we called up told us they didn’t know whether we can stay.”
At a loss of what to do, Seitz decided to reach out to community Facebook groups asking for information but had to delete the posts due to racist comments.
“One woman called me a Nazi. I wasn’t expecting that kind of racism,” she said.
The WA government has since announced national parks in the state will remain open for vulnerable people with no other place to go.
Although she’s experienced racism and intolerance, Seitz says she’s also been treated with kindness by locals.
“Today when we were having lunch on some benches a lady approached us and gave us a $50 IGA voucher. She said she was giving them to travellers since we’re having a hard time and don’t get that much support,” she said.
“Somebody else offered to bring supplies from town to the backpacker campsites in the national park. Everybody should try to help each other, even if you can only help with a few kind words.”
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