Australian borders shut on the eve of their opening

Latest developments on both sides of the Tasman Sea highlight the uncertainty confronting international students

十一月 30, 2021
Pacific Highway, Australia - 2020-12-20 Digital road sign on Pacific Highway Covid-19 Victorian border control after Sydney Northern Beaches outbreak
Source: iStock

Australia’s eleventh-hour suspension of its border reopening highlights the uncertainty that still confronts international students hoping to reach the country. And any such hopes are far off in New Zealand, where large-scale student arrivals are unlikely before May.

Barely 30 hours before Australia’s borders were due to open on 1 December – for the first time in about 21 months – the national security committee of the Cabinet deferred the reopening by a fortnight over concerns about the new Covid-19 variant.

“The temporary pause will ensure Australia can gather the information we need to better understand the Omicron variant, including the efficacy of the vaccine,” prime minister Scott Morrison said. The government has also banned all foreign arrivals from South Africa, its six immediate neighbours and nearby Malawi.

The new variant has also caused Australia’s two most populous states, New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria, to overturn recent decisions not to force arriving international students into quarantine. Students and other travellers now must self-isolate for three days.

South Australia and Western Australia, where quarantine requirements had not been discarded, have tightened the rules applying to interstate travellers. Such state-based restrictions – which could affect international students hoping to arrive via NSW or Victoria – may be extended following an emergency meeting of the prime minister, state premiers and territory chief ministers on 30 November.

Michael Lee, a US citizen based in New Jersey who has been planning to undertake a business degree in NSW for two years, said the snap extension to the border closure had left him in a “terrible situation”. After hearing the “fantastic news” that the borders would open, he quit his job and sold his car and furniture.

“My flight was supposed to leave on 1 December, and I heard the heartbreaking news yesterday. Now I have no job and I’m homeless. I found someone willing to host me for the night but I will need somewhere else to stay. I hope other students and visa holders are not in as dire a situation as mine. I feel like I’m part of the collateral damage from sudden decisions that the government makes.”

The border volatility exacerbates uncertainties over whether foreigners can obtain flights to Australia, either privately or through charter flights organised under state governments’ “pilot” plans to bring in international students.

The first such flight was scheduled to arrive in Sydney on 6 December, carrying more than 250 students from over 15 countries. A second flight ferrying students from South Asia was set for Christmas Eve.

Study NSW insists that both flights will still proceed. “The existing flights provide a safe return path to NSW while the international travel situation remains fluid and spaces on commercial flights may remain limited,” it said.

But it was unclear whether Australian airports have the capacity to process international student arrivals in large numbers, should borders reopen on 15 December.

The Australian Border Force (ABF), which oversees airports and seaports, says a “digital passenger declaration” for presentation at departure gates will be rolled out in December.

But the ABF refused to give a date for the implementation, or to say whether people who had completed the declaration appropriately – demonstrating that they had received recognised vaccinations and tested negatively for Covid – would face further scrutiny of their immunisation status on arrival in Australia.

This suggests arriving students may still face major delays or even rejection, as immigration officials struggle to interpret a baffling array of immunisation certificates written in various languages and referring to vaccines under various names – particularly those from Nepal and the Philippines, where paper-based immunisation certificates vary from province to province.

Such setbacks are dwarfed by the difficulties facing students bound for New Zealand. Under the latest arrangements, fully vaccinated international travellers cannot enter until 30 April and must self-isolate for seven days upon arrival.

Education minister Chris Hipkins, who oversees the government’s pandemic response, flagged the possibility of earlier arrivals. “There may be potential for us to put in place bespoke arrangements for international students, including working with the providers so that they are dedicating some of their facilities…for the purposes of isolation,” he told a press conference. “I’m not ruling anything in or out…but it’s a live conversation.”



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