Why “when it’s safe to do so” is a catalyst for negative reactions

“For students, and for the Australian public, the question becomes personal – who are we being kept safe from?”

Since the start of the pandemic international students stuck offshore have been given repeated promises of being permitted to return to Australia “when it’s safe to do so”.

Eighteen months since Australia’s border closed, many once-patient and understanding students are  turning to social media to voice their frustration with Australia’s ever-changing timeline and ambiguity around the prospect of returning to Australia.

Over the last four months, The Lygon Group has been monitoring social media to get a closer understanding of international students’ sentiment about Australia’s border closures and Covid-19 response. Varsha Balakrishnan explains what they’ve found.

While the phrase “when it is safe to do so” is well-intended, it is now becoming a catalyst for negative reactions from international students studying with an Australian institution offshore. There are two main reasons why it is beginning to have this adverse effect.

Firstly, the phrase provides no clarity around timing. Australia’s border reopening has been proposed to be the end of 2020, early 2021, and now the mid-way through 2022 at the earliest.

The uncertainty and shifting timelines is leading students stuck offshore to hear the phrase “when it’s safe to do so” and react with scepticism and frustration.

Students who have commenced online studies with Australian institutions in 2020 for a 3-year course, for example, are realising that they may be completing two-thirds or more of their education online and in their home country.

At this stage of the pandemic, the phrase “when it is safe to do so” is vague and has been used for too long. It doesn’t provide enough certainty and reassurance for students who are looking to make informed decisions about their future.

To date, students have been largely understanding of Australia’s public health measures and restrictions, but the phrase “when it is safe to do so” is now reemphasising uncertainty, rather than providing any reassurance, with students left feeling like they are just being led on.

Second, the phrase is potentially becoming a part of rising stigmatisation of people from outside Australia’s national boundaries.

While the “when it is safe to do so” is a phrase used in various communications to refer to the border opening generally, it has also been cited multiple times with regards to the return of international students specifically.

For students, and for the Australian public, the question becomes personal – who are we being kept safe from? This perpetuates processes of othering those from outside Australia and positions international students as a threat to the safety of the Australian population.

This intensification of an “us versus them” mentality whereby people from outside our protective borders are deemed potential vectors of disease is part of a growing context of heightened nationalism and sets the scene for a rise in fear-induced xenophobia and racism.

This potential for negative public sentiment towards international students, has some students feeling anxious and unsure if they are still welcome in Australia. There is a need to seriously consider the long-term implications of this on the experience of students currently onshore with studies showing increases in racist incidents and discrimination since the pandemic began.

For international students, messages about border restrictions have never been so mixed. While the Federal government continues to claim that borders will open “when it’s safe to do so”, state and territory governments announce the submission of their plans for the international students pilot return programs.

On social media, international students are calling for clarity and honesty. Their plea is for a concrete plan outlining the milestones that will need to be in place before they can reasonably expect to return to Australia.

International students are actively comparing policy responses from key competitor nations and sharing their opinions on social media.

The confusion and uncertainty expressed by international students studying with Australian institutions are frequently contrasted with the responses from two of Australia’s key competitor nations – Canada and the UK, both of which have reopened their borders to international students, albeit with caveats around vaccinations and quarantine.

We need to focus efforts on rebuilding trust with our international students stuck offshore. And this begins with honesty and clarity.

And at the same time, we need to rebuild trust with the Australian domestic public. There is a need to demonstrate the value international students bring to the lives of average Australians. If Australians are not convinced about the benefits of international students, then we run the risk of negative sentiments from the community deterring international students from choosing Australia as a study destination.

About the author: Varsha Balakrishnan is an education analyst at The Lygon Group.