They’re already faced with huge tuition fees and a host of other financial restrictions. Now there are warnings international students might resort to staying in Australia illegally if their application for permanent residency fails under tough new restrictions.

David Bitel, a lawyer and former president of the Refugee Council of Australia, told The Australian that “in two to three years’ time, what the government will find is there will be tens of thousands of illegals out there”. Other refugee advocates dismiss the claim, but some students are worried life is about to get a whole lot harder.

The debate comes after a significant reduction of jobs on the skilled occupation list (SOL) that took effect on July 1 this year. With these cuts, thousands of students who had previously been eligible for permanent residency will now be rejected, on the basis that their chosen field of work isn’t in high enough demand in Australia.

David Manne, a lawyer and Executive Director of the Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre, calls Bitel’s rhetoric “unhelpful and unfortunate”: “Instead, what’s needed here is to take a big deep breath and properly and soberly examine the dimensions of the problem, in order to work out how to formulate a proper policy response on this issue.”

He does believe there are flaws in the new policy. “For example, it may well be that former students who are facing new and unexpected barriers to obtaining permanency in Australia may well have skills and experience which may be of great benefit to Australia’s future needs,” he told Crikey.

Lily Yuen, international representative for the National Union of Students, deals directly with feedback from offshore-born students regarding this type of policy. She thinks Bitel’s claim might have some validity but isn’t sure what the students’ reaction will be.

“There’s a strong possibility that this might happen, but so far there hasn’t been any feedback or data from the students themselves to sustain what has been said,” Yuen told Crikey.

The permanent residency, or PR, restrictions, on top of other disadvantages faced by international students, are unfair and have a big impact on students’ impressions of Australia, Yuen said: “While most students do have a positive experience, there’s a large minority who don’t get the experience they were expecting from Australia.”

Sonya Ong, a third-year international student studying media and communications at the University of Melbourne, will graduate at the end of this semester. In her three years in Melbourne, Ong has dealt with the financial restrictions faced by all international students: no concession benefit on public transport, a limit of 20 hours’ paid work per week during semester and inflated tuition fees, which are estimated by Yuen to be “between 1.7 and 2 times” the fees paid by local students.

These restrictions make her financial burdens hard to bear without assistance from family. “It’s tough to be independent,” Ong said. “I try to be, but the fees are too much: I don’t have $20,000 a year.”

Under the old SOL, she would be eligible for permanent residency if she were to find a job in the media field. But the majority of occupations stemming from her course have been cut from the new SOL. This includes careers in journalism, public relations and marketing. “I’m just not eligible straight away,” Ong said.

The new SOL has made it very difficult for Ong to get PR, but she has been looking into it and thinks there are ways around the new rules. From what she has heard, students can apply for temporary work or temporary graduate visas after they finish their studies, and use that to gain work experience which might make them eligible for PR. But, “all these visas are expensive and you need to do multiple tests and make sure you speak English”.

She can’t imagine many students choosing to stay in Australia given that they still have other options. And, as far as she is concerned, it’s not the number one priority anyway: “I don’t really care if I get PR or not, I just want a job.”

The Department of Immigration and Citizenship website states that some students may be eligible for PR on the basis of a more extensive ‘transitional SOL’, which is in effect until the end of 2012, but it is unclear to which students this will apply.

The department couldn’t provide statistics on the number of students currently held in detention facilities. But in May 2005, in response to a Senate question, it said that 2,310 former student visa holders had been detained from January 1, 2001 to July 22, 2005 — an average of 42 students per month.

According to the Department: “Most were housed in immigration detention centres; although some were accommodated in alternative arrangements including correctional facilities, police watch houses and hospitals.” The reasons for detention included non-attendance, unsatisfactory performance, failure to commence course, overstaying a visa, withdrawal form study and work breaches.

In December that year, it provided to the Senate information on the periods of detention for 1,375 former student visa holders detained between September 2002 and October 2005. It said 34 were detained for less than a day; 596 for one to seven days; 515 for one to four weeks; 168 for one to three months; 32 for three to six months; 24 for six to 12 months; and seven for one year or more.

The Australian reported in August 2008 that “299 overseas students were put into the Villawood detention centre in Sydney or the Maribyrnong centre in Melbourne” in the three years to the end of March 2008: “Of the detainees, 207 were held for overstaying their visas, 30 for attendance breaches, 14 for failing their courses, seven for not starting their courses, four for withdrawing from their courses, one for a work breach and 36 for other reasons.”

Michaela Rost, a freelance writer and pro bono advocate for international students in detention,  says recent changes to the Education Services for Overseas Students Act meant students were now less likely to have their visas cancelled for failure to attend classes or poor academic results, so it was possible the number of students currently in detention was lower. The introduction of the Migration Amendment (Abolishing Detention Debt) Act 2009 meant students and other detainees are no longer charged for being in detention.

“Up to last October, all asylum seekers, visa over-stayers, including students, all would have been charged bills for being in detention. They were charged $125 a day,” Rost said.

Nevertheless, raids of international student accommodation and workplaces still occur. “[Workplaces] get raided by immigration, along with the tax office and perhaps the sheriff’s office. It may be a couple of times a year, I don’t know exactly. There’s a constant search for student visa overstayers,” Rost said.

CORRECTION: An original version of this report said that changes to the Education Services for Overseas Students Act meant students could no longer have their visas cancelled for failure to attend classes or poor academic results. Michaela Rost has informed Crikey that students can still have their visas cancelled for these reasons, however, changes to the Act mean this is now less likely. We have amended the copy to reflect this information.

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