When Neos Kosmos caught up with Vasilis Dale, like many other Greek recent arrivals, he was in despair.
After having worked hard in Australia, his dreams of becoming part of Australia’s multicultural success story have been fading at the same rate as money he has saved for a permanent residency visa has been slipping through his fingers.
His story is similar to that of many new immigrants who came to Australia from Greece during the economic crisis. Mr Dale arrived from Athens, acquired a student visa and paid the hefty fees required of international students, received a sponsorship in the hospitality industry and paid taxes, bills and contributed to the Australian way of life he wanted to become part of.
After marrying Joanna, another recent arrival from Greece, the two started a family with a little girl, now aged one, and they seemed set on their way to become an Australian migrant success story until the coronavirus crisis put an end to their dreams and Mr Dale was stood down without any entitlements despite his own contribution as an Australian taxpayer.
“Our expenditure is running and our income is zero,” he told Neos Kosmos. “If our savings end, we will no longer have money to apply for permanency.”
The future which once looked bright, is now murky.
“The truth is that with Joanna, we have put a time frame for the end of the financial year, that is, June, in the case that something should change for the better, either with some help or a return to our job, we will fight a little,” he said, still struggling with the thought that after five years of working so hard he “would be forced to go back to Greece with nothing.”
“I feel somehow taken advantage of,” he said. “I did not seek to find a work sponsor; the company chose me and offered me sponsorship. I worked here, paid my taxes and fulfilled all my obligations and now that I need Australia, I am thrown out on the street, naked, barefoot.”
The only good news is that the company sponsoring Bill told him that when coronavirus measures are relaxed “sponsorship procedures would start up again” and the government has extended his visa regardless of not having a sponsor, “but does that mean that these months without work will not count towards my Permanent Residency application?” he wondered.
Not starting from scratch
Neos Kosmos urged Acting Immigration, Citizenship, Migrant Services and Multicultural Affairs Minister Alan Tudge to consider people, like Bill, on the pathway to Permanent Residency. In response to a question by Neos Kosmos, Mr Tudge revealed a “statement of intent” to help visa holders on the path to permanent residency which may have been stood down or have even returned to their own country after being stood down.
“If they return to Australia, they won’t start from scratch again. We will ensure that,” he said.
“We haven’t worked out all the details in relation to this. I’ve indicated our statement of intent. There may be people three years in on a Permanent Residency pathway and all of a sudden, through no fault of their own, the business sponsoring them has been unable to hold them on and they have to return to their home country. We want to say to these individuals: ‘We recognise you have been on this pathway and if you apply in the future to come back to Australia and you have a sponsor who can sponsor you, then the time you have already spent in Australia can count towards that four years minimum you need to apply for permanent residency’,” he said, adding that the new rules are still being worked out and require time before they can be presented due to their complexity.
For Andrew Giles, the Shadow Minister for Multicultural Affairs, this ‘statement of intent’ without a time frame is too little, and perhaps too late bearing in mind the fact that many visa holders have been forced to leave the country already.
“This is exactly why we need greater support for temporary migrants trapped in Australia during this pandemic,” Mr Giles told Neos Kosmos. “We can’t allow people to fall through the cracks and become destitute.
“The Morrison Government can fix this with the stroke of the pen by expanding the JobKeeper Payment, now.”
Visa holders left in the cold
But Australia’s Government has been steadfast in its exclusion of visa holders from its COVID-19 economic stimulus JobKeeper program which pays eligible employers $1,500 per fortnight for each eligible employee for up to six months.
The exclusion of close to 900,000 temporary visa holders with work rights has seriously impacted the ability of many migrants ability to survive, but it also discriminates against businesses, mainly in the hospitality industry which employee visa holders.
Responding to a question by Neos Kosmos on whether the government will show inclusivity to taxpayers in the JobKeeper/JobSeeker schemes, Mr Tudge was reluctant.
“We note that some people are in difficulty, we acknowledge that and we have empathy for their situation which has not been caused by them. Having said that, whenever a person comes into Australia on a temporary visa there has always been the expectation that they will be able to look after themselves while they are temporarily in Australia and we have always reserved the welfare and job assistance for citizens and permanent residents,” he said.
He did however outline a number of avenues the government has opened to help these people, such as giving visa holders access to their superannuation, providing flexibility in relation to visas and the facilitation of more working hours, particularly for international students.
Apart from government help, he urged migrants to turn to their communities, consulates and other emergency providers while also outlining the $110 million benchmarked for international students by tertiary institutions.
“In some respects – that’s the great Australian way – that we all chip in and help one another,” he said.
Costas Markos, one of the people responsible for the Greek Community of Melbourne’s Helpline (telephone 03 9662 2722, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org) said that he understands that “there is a shared responsibility, but there is also a government responsibility”.
“Greeks are proud,” Mr Markos said. “They don’t take handouts. They see it as a free ride.
“We’ve had a few calls about bridging visas and spousal visas and there’s mainly concern about the waiting period. Some people have been waiting for two years and yet they are working on a bridging visa and not entitled to JobKeeper, and that is unfair especially when they are contributing to the economy. They are entitled to Medicare, but not to JobKeeper.”
Marianna Vassilakopoulou was one of the many who did not call the GCM’s helpline when she found herself in dire straits. She arrived in Australia from Thessaloniki six years ago with her mother and stepfather, an Australian citizen. She was employed waitressing and on Uber deliveries when she was stood down.
“I’ve already taken my superannuation. It was not a large sum and I couldn’t say, ‘oh, I’m rich now’, but it was a lifeline. It’s already finished after paying the bills. I thought I’m 23 years of age, and I don’t even know if I’ll live to the age of 65 to enjoy it. So I’ll start over when the crisis is over,” she told Neos Kosmos.
Marianna said she knows many newly-arrived migrants who have already returned to Greece due to the coronavirus crisis.
Rally Papadopoulos is one of the 150,000 international students living in Victoria. “All the money I had, I used to pay fees for my school and to apply for a bridging visa and I can’t work to survive,” he said in a message on Ellinon Neomatanaston Australia on Facebook calling for work.
“You are forced to find ways to make black money and I, currently, the way things are with coronavirus can’t even find that.”
He considers that the choice of the government to exclude students who are among the greatest “sources of revenue for Australia” is wrong.
Feeling left “totally in the hands of faith” he too is left wondering what to do in the face of an uncertain future.
Mr Markos confirmed that the helpline had initially been inundated with calls in the first few days, even prior to kicking off, especially by people wanting a flight back to Greece. “I heard conflicting reports of flights being anything from $2,000 to $8,000 dollars,” he said.
The desperation of Helpline callers who were visa holders wanting to leave Australia comes as little surprise bearing in mind Mr Morrison’s announcement on 3 April which showed cracks in the foundations on which multicultural Australia is built. “As much as it is lovely to have visitors to Australia in good times, at times like this if you’re a visitor in this country, it is time, as it has been now for some while – and I know many visitors have – to make your way home and to ensure that you can receive the supports that are available … in your home countries,” the Prime Minister said, addressing the nation.
Neos Kosmos reached out to Maria Dimopoulos, Deputy Chair at Victorian Multicultural Commission, for an interview and received this statement concerning the VMC’s stand:
The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is impacting on all facets of our lives and society.
For many people, including newly-arrived permanent and temporary migrants, it continues to be a time of considerable hardship. We therefore welcome the Federal Government’s intent to support temporary visa holders who are on the path to permanent residency by ensuring they are not disadvantaged due to the coronavirus crisis. Temporary residents, including those who have come here to study and work, make significant economic, cultural and social contributions to our country, and should be given the same support as every Australian during this crisis. Those temporary visa holders who have been stood down or returned to their home country after being stood down, are particularly vulnerable and need urgent and immediate assistance. These people have paid their taxes and built their lives here. They call Australia home.
We must value their contributions and diverse skills now and into the future, and recognise that they are one of us, and will play an important role as we emerge from this crisis and move into the recovery phase. As a society, our recovery will depend on our psychological and economic strength. It is therefore vitally important that the recovery phase includes initiatives around key areas including employment, education, income support, mental health and family violence.
These supports will need to be inclusive and accessible to everyone, including those on temporary visas as well as secondary applicants, many of whom are women. Such an inclusive approach will ensure no one gets left behind. It will require a collective, whole of community effort, with government, non-government organisations and the private sector stepping up to help safeguard our reputation and protect industries and jobs for the future. And as we move forward, it will also be important for Australia to uphold its global responsibilities, including maintaining our humanitarian program and continuing to welcome people from around world to join our proudly multicultural country. Australia’s immigration program has and will continue to deliver considerable economic, cultural and social benefits to our society.