If they’re not in a position to support themselves, then there is the alternative for them to return to their home countries.

Time to go home,’ Australian PM tells foreign students

I’m floored. The PM is talking about my actual day job.

I don’t know where to start.

Maybe it began yesterday, when I was meeting online with a Vietnamese student who has begun her PhD here in Australia, investigating whether international students’ attitudes to environmental issues change when they study outside their home country.

At the end of the meeting we talked about how things are in the world, and she said: “Do you need me to send you some masks?” We laughed, and I thanked her for the way international students have taken such good care of us while we’ve carried on with the line that masks don’t matter, they’re not recommended government advice.

They’ve been really worried by our lack of care for ourselves or each other. In our company they have politely kept their masks in their pockets, because they don’t want to offend or frighten us about how serious things are.

But we’ve been wearing other masks, that are slipping.


Maybe it was just yesterday, although days now seem to contain infinite stretches of time.

Yesterday after a week of announcements of financial support for everyone who has fallen through the cracks in this crisis except international students, our Prime Minister mused at a press conference that no one’s keeping them here, and if they’re out of jobs and out of rent, well then, they can just go home.

After all, they told us they could manage here without our help:

“All students who come to Australia…have to give a warranty that they are able to support themselves for the first 12 months of their study. That is not an unreasonable expectation of the government, that students would be able to fulfil the commitment that they gave.”

That clicking sound that you hear? That’s the Australian university sector reaching for its calculator and making some panicky predictions about future revenue, which is the commitment we were really banking on. International onshore fee paying higher education is serious business for Australia, and in boom times we like to point out that our education exports are right up there with all the other extractive industries. Why, we’re the human part of the Australian minerals boom.

Good as gold, almost.

OK, clearly some international students can’t just go home, however they click their ruby slippers. They have no choice but to ride out this tempest in our care, because the borders to their home countries have already closed. They are yearning for home, and missing their loved ones, and they are stranded with us like Australians are stranded in other places.

But for those who could go home, and are choosing to stay on because they have taken our hospitality at face value and in good faith, this offhand messaging from our government is contradictory, demoralising and frightening.


Maybe it wasn’t just yesterday. Maybe this mask that was whisked off yesterday has been there all along.

Last year the international students that I work with started to tell me stories of their everyday run-ins with the Australians who have made them feel less welcome.

One student tells me about walking to the store on an otherwise empty street, when a driver slowed down to shout at her to go home. What stays in her mind is how awkward this was for the driver, that he had to lean right across the passenger seat to yell at her.

These incidents are rare, I say to myself. Please say they’re rare.

Later I check in with a different student who told me a story as I wanted to be sure I got the details right. “You know that time you were chased in the street and shouted at?”

“Which time?” she said.


This is what matters deeply about the Prime Minister’s remarks. It’s not the policy failure to include international students in the community of “Australians and Australian residents” that are his apparent focus.

Although that failure is significant.

International students have visas to live here for the years that they study with us. They reside here, in the fullest sense: they work in our communities, they pay taxes and they pay rent. They are spending their money right alongside us, in ways that sustain our businesses, big and small. Their kids are in our schools. And now that they’re losing their jobs just like all our students, this is going to affect their contribution to our everyday national spend in exactly the same way as other job losses in Australia.

Let’s be real: the government isn’t offering economic stimulus just to keep people going, but to keep people spending. So there is literally no good policy reason why our resident-in-Australia international student community should be excluded from this encouragement to keep our economic batteries from going flat while normal spending is parked.

But that’s not why the Prime Minister’s leadership on the question of our hospitality to international students really matters. It’s not the economic consequence to the sector I work in, or the city I live in.

It’s the human impact of this thinking that connects what comes from government to what comes through a rolled down car window in a quiet street.

go home, just go home

Is this who we are?


At the beginning of all this, a student asked for a recommendation of something substantial to read while at home. From my battered pile of favourite books, I suggested Kathleen Stewart’s Ordinary Affects. And I still would. If you want the comfort of careful attention to the tiny details of our everyday lives, this one’s for you.

But I have gone back to Derrida and Of Hospitality, containing his two lectures ‘Foreigner Question’ and ‘Step of Hospitality/No Hospitality’. This book lives with me. It’s the 10,000 piece puzzle that I keep coming back to.

The other becomes a hostile subject, and I risk becoming their hostage.

Jacques Derrida, ‘Foreigner Question’, Of Hospitality p 54

It looks like simple wordplay: hostile, hostage, hospitality. But it’s not a joke; Derrida in these lectures is a practical observer of the political everyday. It’s 1996, and he’s watching the spectacle of regulatory innovation as governments attempt to keep up with new technological challenges to the integrity of national boundaries. Email! The internet! Online porn!

He sees the absurd effort of this regulatory talk for what it is: an attempt to game insularity against dependency, over and over. It’s 1996, and no government is going to pull this off.

His deep attention is to the ancient conventions of hospitality as a paradox: that in order to be able to give space to another, you need to control the threshold that you are inviting them to cross. Immediately, your hospitality is both diminished and inverted. It can no longer be itself, and you are not who you thought you were.

Hospitality: hostage, hostile.


When this is done, the planet we are all living on will still be small, and its immense and borderless environmental emergency will still be facing all of us together. We can’t hope to tackle this without transforming our capacity to imagine common ground beyond the competitive anxieties of the nation.

And we have no hope at all, unless we speak up against the reductive, containerised thinking about our obligation to care for each other, and for all our futures, that is coming from governments now.

The featured image to this post is by cyrus gomez on Unsplash


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