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'It really hurts': the New Zealanders in Australia locked out of the system

Andenet Welelaw wants to be a rocket scientist. With a goal of completing a double degree in science and engineering before embarking on a career as an aerospace engineer, the 17-year-old from Melbourne’s west is ambitious and smart.

His hard work during VCE exams last year paid off, and he has already been offered a spot to study engineering at RMIT University, while he still awaits an offer from Monash University and the University of Melbourne.

But unlike many of his friends from high school, Welelaw will be unable to pursue his dreams at university.

Welelaw arrived in Australia with has family in 2013 on New Zealand passports, after being granted refugee status there from their home country of Ethiopia.

They moved to Melbourne to be closer to family and for better job prospects, but although Welelaw has been in Australia since he was 12 years old and successfully completed his high school studies here, he is ineligible for a government-funded university loan.

With his family being unable to pay for his course upfront or qualify for citizenship in Australia, Welelaw has been left with the difficult decision of putting his dreams on hold, or returning to New Zealand – a country he barely remembers – by himself.

“I feel really overwhelmed and stranded, because I call Australia my home,” Welelaw says. “It really hurts.”

“I’ve developed so many relationships here, it’s where I call home. There are so many friends and family members here and we all have bonded together. Going back to New Zealand would be tough.”

New Zealanders living permanently in Australia on Special Category Visas must have arrived in Australia as a minor at least 10 years ago to qualify for the Hecs-Help program, where the cost of an undergraduate course is covered upfront and paid back once the recipient finds full-time employment.


New Zealanders on Special Category Visas must have arrived in Australia as a minor at least 10 years ago to qualify for Hecs-Help. Photograph: Christopher Hopkins/The Guardian

This leaves Welelaw ineligible for the scheme until 2023.

While New Zealanders in Australia can receive commonwealth-subsidised places at university, this still leaves upfront fees of thousands of dollars per year for an undergraduate course.

Those living in Australia on the Special Category Visa are also not eligible for the vast majority of social security and assistance in Australia, including most forms of welfare, housing assistance and university loans.

Reinforcing disadvantage

Melbourne community legal centre WestJustice has established a first of its kind clinic to cater for the needs of the local Pacific Islander and Māori communities, and lawyers at the centre say they’ve seen first-hand the pressure and stress that this places on vulnerable families, with the lack of access to university perpetuating this cycle of disadvantage.

WestJustice lawyer Sarouche Razi says New Zealanders of colour are being affected the most by these restrictions.

“There’s an underclass that doesn’t get access to safety nets like every other Australian does, and it disproportionately affects New Zealanders of colour,” Razi says. “We can see how people, because of the system, are constantly slipping through the cracks and aren’t supported by the government.”

Plans to force New Zealanders to pay international fees for university courses were scrapped by the government in late 2017, but having to pay for courses upfront has left many unable to go to university in Australia, and without a social safety net.

“We’re basically saying to that person, ‘your life prospects are in blue-collar work or as a tradie or security guard, and if you want to study at university you have to go back to New Zealand’,” he says.

WestJustice school lawyer Semisi Kailahi says he is working with several families who have discovered that their children cannot access university support, and are unable to afford to pay the expensive fees upfront.

“We have families that are uneducated and they want to break that cycle and have their child be the first in their family to go to university,” Kailahi says. “But the lack of incentives is tough – the parents find out they won’t have the government paying for them, while their neighbour might be able to.”

While he was happy with his final results, it was a bittersweet moment for Welelaw with the knowledge he probably would not be able to join his friends at university.

“Of course I am happy for them making it into the courses, but I do feel a bit of envy towards them,” he says.

Kailahi previously worked as a school lawyer at Welelaw’s school in Tarneit, 25km west of the Melbourne CBD, where he said about 100 of the students from Pacific Islander backgrounds are unable to qualify for a Help loan.

“It’s quite distressing,” he says.

Heavy burden

Even for the families that can afford to pay for the university fees upfront, this has placed a huge burden and financial stress on them.

One young Pacific Islander is currently working two part-time jobs to help her parents pay for her civil engineering degree at a university in Sydney.

“It’s a massive expense and there’s no flexibility around it whatsoever,” the student’s mother, Kiana*, says. “But we are making a life here.”

Liza Cox, the founder of a support group for New Zealanders in Australia, Oz Kiwis, says the inability to pursue further education gives many of the Pacific Islanders and New Zealanders of colour in Australia little hope for the future.

“That means that before their life has started they’ve already plummeted off the cliff,” Cox says. “Not having access to Help is one of the worst injustices … those children are being punished by a decision made by their parents completely innocently.”

Others have been forced to make the difficult decision of moving back to New Zealand, away from established networks of friends and family in Australia, to go to university, Kailahi says.

“They have to go back there and try to find some family to live with – they’re going back to places they haven’t been since they were toddlers,” he says. “They’ve been working here and contributing to society – they’re good people but they have to go start the whole thing again.”

Welelaw is now actively considering returning to Auckland to go to university, although the thought of this is “overwhelming” to him. Welelaw’s mother, Anegu Tesfaye, is also being forced to consider this option.

“It’s very hard for me – I can’t send him on his own,” Tesfaye says. “It is not fair at all – where is the humanity? How can we treat others like this? It’s very shameful.”

Sarah’s* family has already been through this experience – the young student moved back to New Zealand to undertake a social work degree after being unable to afford a similar course in Australia, leaving her daughter behind in Sydney.

“It would be much better if she could be here, but we don’t have the financial side of things to help here,” Sarah’s mother says. “Her not being here with her daughter is very hard.”

To qualify for permanent citizenship in Australia, New Zealanders need to have earned at least $53,900 each year for the last five years to qualify. Applications cost $3,600 for an individual and $1,800 for a dependant.

For many families, including Welelaw’s, this threshold is far too high.

Welelaw says he wants to raise awareness of the struggles that many New Zealanders face in Australia.

“This issue is tucked away under the carpet,” he says. “When people hear about it they do get disheartened. They forget that there are kiwis living in Australia and they don’t have certain benefits that Australians have.

“It would just be everything if you could view us as Australian.”

*Not real names

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