Coronavirus: Irish in Australia facing stay-or-go decisions

‘We’re going home with nothing, nowhere to stay. It’s all gone in a matter of a couple of days’

Sarah Costello with her husband, Stephen, and children Heidi and Harlee.

Sarah Costello with her husband, Stephen, and children Heidi and Harlee.

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When Sarah Costello’s work as a beauty therapist dried up last month all she could do was wait.

At first, she was hopeful.

“We were watching the news every single day and I was just thinking, ‘they’ll at least help the people here with kids’.”

But as the days and weeks passed, it became clear she would not be included in the Australian government’s economic safety net – worth $320 billion (€186 billion) – to help workers and businesses through the worst of the pandemic.

Sarah (32) and her husband Stephen (33) moved to Brisbane in 2017, where they now live with their two daughters Heidi and Harlee.

They are on a temporary visa – sponsored by Stephen’s employer – which gives the family rights to work and live in Australia for up to four years.

Like many migrant workers in Australia, the couple, originally from Ballybrack in Dublin, have both lost their jobs due to coronavirus.

As they are not permanent residents or citizens, they’re not entitled to the federal government’s wage subsidy assistance.

Sarah says they’ve no choice but to pack up and go back to Dublin.

“We’re leaving all of our stuff here at the last minute. My daughter’s been in school here for three years, she’s leaving everything behind. We’re going home with nothing, nowhere to stay. It’s all just gone in a matter of a couple of days.”

According to the Department of Home Affairs, there are “137,806 temporary skilled visa holders in Australia, of which 5,776 are Irish nationals”.

Irish abroad: Will you stay or go?

This figure does not include those on working-holiday “backpacker” visas or student visas. Most are workers who have built careers, lives and families here.

Lucia Campbell (26) from Dungannon in Co Tyrone has lived in Perth for four years, where she works as a project manager in the construction industry.

Her partner Darren (28), from Leitrim, has lived in Perth for 10 years and is now a citizen. Lucia is on a temporary-partner visa.

With most of her construction projects frozen or cancelled, Lucia is facing financial uncertainty.

“I’m in a bad situation now, even though I have the same working rights as a permanent resident, I’m still not entitled to JobSeekers’ or JobKeepers’ [benefit].”

In a press conference at the beginning of the month, Australian prime minister Scott Morrison told temporary visa holders with no means of funding themselves to “return to their home countries”.

Lucia says she understands citizens and residents have to “take priority”.

“It’s just frustrating. For me, I am a resident here. It’s not really an option for me to jump on a plane and go home. I’ve built my career out here, I’ve lived here for four years with my partner, I can’t just up and leave.”

The feeling is shared by Ciara Tobin (27) who has lived in Melbourne for nearly six years.

Ciara, from Blackrock in Dublin, is a hairdresser at a salon in Melbourne’s central business district.

She too is on a temporary visa, sponsored by her employer, and like Sarah and Lucia, lost almost all of her income in recent weeks.

“It’s kind of like I’m not a citizen of anywhere, I’m just stuck in limbo. That’s what it feels like, because no one’s willing to help.”

On April 4th, the federal government announced temporary visa holders could access up to $10,000 from their superannuation (pension) fund to help them through difficult weeks ahead.

Tobin has not been able to access her fund yet as “the website keeps crashing”. But even if she eventually accesses it, she says she should not have to do so.

“I’m meant to have it for when I’m older.”

Both women want to get through the coming weeks without being forced to leave. But for Sarah Costello the risk of staying with no support was just too great.

“There’s no alternative, you either stay here and risk having no income for however long it is and not being able to pay your rent or feed your kids or else you go home and try and get support at home.”

As she packs up her home, not knowing where her family will live when they get back to Dublin or how they will find work during a pandemic, she lays the blame at the door of Morrison’s government.

“It’s honestly heartbreaking that they can’t even have any compassion whatsoever for people here and the kids of the people here. It’s shameful.”

The Australian department of home affairs said Australia has worked to offer greater flexibility to visa holders, but emphasised its main focus is to “keep Australians in work and businesses in business”.