Chinese students' fears over New Zealand travel ban

The announcement of an extended travel ban over the weekend has sparked a new wave of disappointment and confusion among Chinese students who are barred from coming to study in New Zealand. As universities around the country begin their first semester, around 6,500 Chinese students are still waiting desperately for a lifting of the travel restrictions. 

On Saturday, Health Minister Dr David Clark announced the entry ban for all individuals from mainland China would continue for a further eight days, until February 24th, to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus (Covid-19). The ban includes New Zealand-based Chinese students who had returned to China to celebrate Chinese New Year and are now unable to return. 

Last-minute holiday in a stopover country

Directly after the announcement, some students rushed to take a last-minute holiday in a stopover country, to get around the restrictions that bar New Zealand's non-citizens who have been to China within the last 14 days from returning.

According to news site “SkyKiwi”, the first batch of Chinese travellers who had stopped over in a third country for 14 days, arrived and entered New Zealand successfully. Chinese international students studying in Australia and New Zealand have joined group chats online to discuss going to a stopover country. They also shared information from Immigration New Zealand (INZ).

On INZ's website, the coronavirus update page states: If I stay outside of China for more than 14 days can I then travel to New Zealand?  The answer from INZ is: Yes.

However, the spread of the deadly COVID-19 virus and travel restrictions worldwide have left Chinese students very few detour options. Thailand is one of them. It is visa-free for Chinese passport holders, and travellers from Thailand are not banned from entry into New Zealand so far.

The trip — from a Chinese city to Bangkok and then to Auckland 14 days later — is risky, as there is no guarantee that the current travel policies of Thailand and New Zealand will remain the same. Flights and accommodation are expensive, and the fear of the virus is everywhere.

Thailand has this week recorded 35 cases of coronavirus.

Most students chose not to take the risk and be supportive of the travel restrictions. "You go to the airports, live in a foreign country with a weaker healthcare system, and stay on flights for over 20 hours, you increase your chance of getting virus. So why go?" questioned a student in a chat group debating the merits of taking a holiday in a stopover country.

 "It is difficult, no matter whether we stay or go. We students are so pathetic and helpless," another student added.

Two top concerns: cost and time

Freddy, a recent graduate at the University of Canterbury, has been stuck in his home with his parents in Wuhan, the epicentre of coronavirus outbreak, for nearly a month, and says his chance to return to New Zealand for work is "unknown for a long period".

He is the chairperson of New Zealand Chinese International Student Club, which numbers over 2,000 Chinese students studying in New Zealand. The club runs a chat group on WeChat, China’s most popular social media platform.

Since early February, the chat group has been inundated with inquiries and concerns over travel restrictions and enrolment from students. On Saturday, just a couple of hours after the New Zealand government announced an extended travel ban, hundreds of messages poured into the group.

"The atmosphere among students is tense, and their anxieties are focused on two topics in particular: cost and time," said Freddy, "With respect to the cost, students need to pay rent in New Zealand while they are stuck in China. They are not getting a refund. The longer they wait, the bigger the cost will be.

"Another problem is time. For most students, their visa will expire at the end of March. If they aren't in New Zealand by then, they need to apply for another visa in China. It will very likely take a long time, given the situation with the epidemic." 

Online lectures: a problem in the long run

Online lectures have been proposed as a partial solution, if the travel restrictions are going to be extended again. – but many students don't embrace the idea of taking online courses at home.

"Not all courses are suited to online delivery. There are group work assignments for each course I select for this semester. How can I complete them remotely? Instead of failing a course or getting a bad GPA for my third year, I'd rather withdraw the entire semester," said Selena, a commerce major at the University of Canterbury who is now based in Nanjing, China.

"It takes a longer time to log on my university account, let alone watching live streaming classes. It is not going to work," said Zhou, a postgraduate student stuck in her home in Urumqi, in Xinjiang province.

Information is heavily controlled in China. Many online communication channels, including Google, Facebook and Skype, are blocked. However last week, China reportedly agreed to relax its internet restrictions for 100,000 students studying in Australia, after lobbying from Australia's higher education sector. 

In China, more than 12 million students are encouraged to study from home, together with millions of people working remotely. The live-streaming platforms in China have been overwhelmed by surges in traffic, with many users complaining of lag and interruptions.

For Chinese students hoping to return to their studies in New Zealand, the coronavirus may have some very long-lasting impacts.    

- Asia Media Centre