Andenet Welelaw and his mother Anegu Tesfaye. Andenet has been offered a place at RMIT to study engineering but is ineligible for a government-funded university loan. (Photo: Chris Hopkins/The Guardian)
‘It really hurts’: the New Zealanders in Australia locked out of the system
New Zealand ‘underclass’ denied access to higher education, welfare and the prospect of citizenship under rules which disproportionately affect minorities
12 Tuesday 2019
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.
But unlike many of his friends from high school, Welelaw will be unable to pursue his dreams at university. He 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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, from a advocacy 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.
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.”
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 [there are other options]. Applications cost $3,600 for an individual and $1,800 for a dependent. 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
Denham Sadler is a Melbourne-based freelance journalist
[Read the full Guardian article].