By Michaela Rost
Melbourne: The 5000 mainly Indian international students working as part time taxi drivers face further hidden problems. Not only must they deal with “assault, abuse, fare evasion 12 hour shifts, poor security – all this for $8 an hour”, as The Age reported, but they are also under surveillance from the department of immigration.
Student cabbies protesting after the brutal attack on their colleague bravely risked losing their visas. Had police been instructed to arrest them, the Department of Immigration and Citizenship could have canceled their student visas.
Throughout the year, DIAC conducts routine ‘compliance field operations’, or raids, on taxi drivers to determine if they are working more than 20 hours per week – the work limit imposed on students by migration regulations.
Students found working two 12 hour minimum taxi shifts automatically have their visas revoked under mandatory visa cancellation law, and must leave Australia as soon as possible.
Yet they may not actually work the long 12 hours straight, but sometimes study or sleep few hours in their cab. Nevertheless, because of slave labour wages, their only option is take two shifts totaling 24 hours – despite the risk of losing their visa – since rising living and education costs, in addition to many other unforeseen expenses, are very hard to meet.
For example, just to pay for daily travel to university, at $8 per hour a student cabby has to work for 4 of the permitted 20 hours because the state government does not grant international students transport concessions.
Other expenses may include high migration fees for advice or visa extension.
And if their employers insist that they work hours that flout regulations or forego the job, the students are then left without a choice.
As the Times of India reported on 30 April, “…the majority of the drivers are students from India who work in the nights to repay their loans or pay their hefty fees. All this is apart from the rising rent and petrol prices. ‘If I do not drive taxi after classes, I will not be able to afford my fees. Life is tough in Australia for international students. I wish the Indian government steps in to support us,’ Dinesh Singh said. “
In 2004-05, 5110 national compliance field operations were conducted specifically to locate student visa breaches and over-stayers – a national average of 14 raids per day and 28% of all immigration raids.
Although overseas students, who are mainly from China and India, formed only about 8% of all visas granted in 2004, they constituted a disproportionate 33% of all visa cancellations, about 8000 per year. Students then become ’illegal non-citizens’.
Most who lose their visa are deported in disgrace back to their families. Without a completed degree in the Indian subcontinent, many have minimal means of repaying their parents, who may have undertaken massive education loans at high interest rates to pay expensive Australian education costs. The family suffers under huge economic and social stress. There are no known studies on the true impact.
However, any student who challenges the visa cancellation can be granted a bridging visa to live in the community (without work rights) while he tries to appeal. Yet because of Australia’s stringent immigration laws, a few have unfortunately ended up in immigration detention, particularly if they could not afford the cost of a $10,000 plus bond required as a surety.
From January 2001 to July 2005, 2,300 international students were detained for between a few days to many months. Reasons included breaching work conditions, inadequate attendance at education institutions, unsatisfactory academic performance, failure to commence course, overstaying a visa and withdrawal form study.
There is no independent board of review to assess student visa cancellations.
Appeals for reinstatement of student visas take time, sometimes a few months, but have low success rates in the Migration Review Tribunal.
Meanwhile detained students, neither tried nor convicted, have been charged $125-$225 per day for incarceration, under S.209 of the Migration Act. Australia is the only country to charge detainees for their imprisonment.
Whether in or out of detention, a student involved in an appeal process is basically subject to the same complex laws and regulations as asylum seekers – unknown and incomprehensible to most Australians – where legal advice is not automatically available to them as it is for citizens and residents. A border control mentality has created two legal systems.
“Australia’s recent approach to asylum seekers and refugees has been radical and degenerative in nature,” writes David Mann, co-ordinator and principal solicitor of the Human Rights Law Resource Centre. “[It] has created one of the toughest and most extensive anti-asylum seeker systems … from a human rights perspective, in many respects, the Western world’s worst practices.
“Over the last decade, we have witnessed the construction of a legal architecture in the Immigration area which ‘excised’ decision-making and other government conduct from the ordinary, mainstream Australian legal system. In many areas, this has involved legislative developments, which represent a radical departure from the well-established foundations of our legal system. Such principles include the application of the rule of law, access to legal advice, access to the Courts, habeas corpus, and anti-discrimination. There have been strenuous attempts by the Executive to expunge these principles from migration law.”
Perhaps this is the only explanation why one Indian student could be detained for two years during his appeal to finish his studies in Maribyrnong and Baxter Immigration Detention Centres, and billed $97,000. Yet another was charged $77,000 for eighteen months detention, ten of which he spent waiting for the former minister’s decision about his appeal.
These students preferred to endure draconian hardship rather than waste their parents’ major financial sacrifices.
A former Indian student cabby was just one subject short of completing a Master’s IT degree, when caught working extra hours to pay high legal fees to extend his visa. It was impossible to survive on the ‘no work or study’ bridging visa, so he had to earn, was caught again, and spent 12 months detained during a futile appeal that landed him with an $80,000 detention bill. His university did not refund fees paid in advance.
After deportation this well spoken, intelligent young man was too frightened to return to his family, not wanting to bring shame to them. He felt a social outcast. What has happened to him since? And to so many thousands other deported students?
Certainly immigration would have sent a detention bill reminder to his family address. Unless a re-payment plan is made, he cannot return to Australia.
Very few detention debts are waived according to the Commonwealth Ombudsman’s April 2008 report: “Of 3,568 debts raised in the last financial year only 10 were waived.”
In this student’s case, if the taxi industry had been fairly regulated and his wages equitable, he may have never had to endure this roller-coaster nightmare in desperate pursuit of some natural justice in the first place.
Although a majority of overseas students have overall satisfactory experiences in Australia, some must deal with unprofessional education providers, intent on getting big fees for low quality courses. But the law prevents disillusioned students from changing courses for one year, who are thus forced to waste their parents’ precious resources.
The most tragic case of despair and economic hardship was an Indian girl who, in 2006, chose to suicide by jumping in front of a train after failing her masters by three marks. Her college had refused to let her re-sit the exam unless she paid $2000 upfront – money she did not have.
International students generate a $7 billion plus industry, more than 20% of Australia’s tertiary education budget, that offsets progressive erosion of federal funding for education in the last decade. Universities and education institutions have to recruit intensively in Asia for new full fee paying students.
Unsurprisingly, some south Asian students feel subject to discrimination and used as part of a cash cow industry.
Based on research as a pro bona advocate, I wrote a submission for the Senate’s 2005 ‘Inquiry into the Administration and Operation of the Migration Act’ about the detention of international students, and the complex difficulties they face in Australia.
The Senate Legal Committee’s final report in 2006 criticized aspects of the tough, mandatory visa cancellation legislation for international students, and high rate of student visa cancellations. It recommended “that the Migration Act and Regulations be amended to allow for greater flexibility and discretion in dealing with breaches of the conditions of students visas.”
It also recommended a more compassionate, flexible administrative approach from immigration, which DIAC seems to be delivering. However few changes have been made to the law, but stricter requirements for education providers to offer better learning and support services have been introduced.
The cabbies’ revolt reveals just the surface of a Pandora’s box of many issues for international students brewing for a long time.
Therefore, the Federation of Indian Students Association’s proposed thorough information brochure to educate prospective and current students about available services, assistance and rights in Australia is a welcome and necessary initiative, deserving community and government support.
– South Asia Times (May 2008)