Australian PM asks visa holders to return home amid Covid-19 pandemic

Staff reporter

The Bhutanese community in Australia, like many international communities, has not taken well what the Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, told journalists after a national cabinet meeting yesterday.

The prime minister said that those who had come to Australia should return to their home countries if they are not in a position to support themselves in the wake of increasing cases of Covid-19.  “Australia must focus on its citizens and its residents to ensure that we can maximise the economic supports that we have,” he had said.

The announcement came after the Australian government refused support to foreign students. The international education sector contributed $34 billion to the Australian economy in 2019.

With more than 8,000 Bhutanese in Australia, as students, dependents and permanent residents, many expressed their shock and disappointment on social media.

A 36-year-old Perth resident said it was the last thing he expected in such difficult times. “We understand everything is expensive here, especially the medical bills and we want to go home but with airports closed and transits not allowed, I don’t know how we would return home.”

He said almost everyone is affected because of the pandemic, as many lost jobs or reduced working hours. “People who have arrived in Australia earlier this year are most affected, as they do not have stable jobs.”

In Canberra, a student said except for newcomers, many who have been in Australia for a longer period might have saved enough to continue their education. “We have already paid our fees and we would incur huge loss if we return just like that.”

While the Council of International Students Australia condemned the Prime Minister’s comment, the Edith Cowan University (ECU) Student Guild President in Perth, where a majority of Bhutanese students are enrolled issued a press release and stated the Prime Minister’s comment doesn’t reflect the overall positive contribution the international students bring to the country.

It stated that it would provide continued support to international students.

Meanwhile, foreign minister Dr Tandi Dorji said the Australian Prime Minister did not ask all international students to return home but only those who cannot support themselves. “All the countries are asking the same and this is nothing new.”

He, however, said that the government is aware of the situation of Bhutanese in Australia and they already discussed the issue. “The embassy in Bangkok already issued an advisory to Bhutanese in Australia.”

Lyonpo Dr Tandi Dorji said that for those who want to return home but not possible as of now because of travel ban or restrictions put in place by most countries, TashiAir and Druk Air decided to charter flights once the travel ban or restrictions are lifted.

According to the advisory issued by the embassy in Bangkok, about 150 Bhutanese, mostly from Perth wanted to return home.

The General Secretary of the Association of Bhutanese in Perth Incorporated (ABPI), Karma Choden, late last night told Kuensel that the association is analysing the situation. “We are working on strategies to address the issues like writing to universities, colleges and institutions to consider some of the issues the ABPI is putting forth,” she said.

“We are also writing to the WA government to look for grants to the ABPI and exploring other options towards supporting the Bhutanese community.”

Perth in Western Australia has the maximum number of Bhutanese in Australia. Karma Choden said the ABPI and the Bhutanese in Perth Covid-19 response group is working to help fellow Bhutanese.