The COVID-19 pandemic has been a difficult experience for many countries around the world. Australia and Indonesia are no exception to this rule. With both countries slowly returning to normalcy, AIYA National is reflecting on the pandemic from a uniquely Australia-Indonesia youth perspective.

This article is the first in a two part series exploring the experiences of Indonesian youth in Australia and Australian youth in Indonesia during the COVID-19 pandemic. In this first part, we interviewed five Indonesians who currently reside in Australia about their decision to stay, the difficulties they faced, and their views on Australian society.

Indonesian youth in Australia are highly diverse. They come from different parts of Indonesia and represent different demographics, from international students, to young professionals and second generation immigrants. 

Yet we found that more similarities than differences exist between this diverse group of youth. Ultimately, their COVID-19 experiences can be summarised by one word: difficult.

Difficult Decisions

Being away from home is difficult regardless of the pandemic. Despite this, many Indonesian international students and recent graduates chose to stay in Australia.

Calvin* (Melbourne, 22), who recently completed a design degree, stayed because of the effect of returning to Indonesia would have on his ability to advance his career.

“I would like to get experience in the Australian design industry,” he said. “The only thing preventing me from moving back is the fact that I still wanted more experience living and working overseas.”

For students, the desire to take in-person classes at university was a major factor behind their decision to stay. Reza (Melbourne, 23), a master’s student in public policy, had the opportunity to attend in-person classes at the beginning of the year when Australia was COVID-free and he stuck around to be able to attend these classes. 

“It’s a different experience studying online and in-person,” he said. “I just couldn’t imagine studying remotely from Indonesia because I value face-to-face interactions with other students.”

For all of our interviewees, staying in Australia was ultimately a difficult decision to make. Reza said that it was hard for him to be separated from his family for such a long time and Calvin similarly said that he misses a lot of things from Indonesia, from his friends to the street food. 

Karen (Melbourne, 21), who is also a recent graduate and stayed to pursue a career in Australia, told us, “of course I miss home, but the fear of not being allowed back into Australia keeps me from going.”

In March 2020, Australia banned all non-citizens and non-permanent resident holders from entering Australia and this ban is in effect to this day. 

These strict border rules were also commonly cited as a factor behind interviewees’ reasons to stay. For many international students and recent graduates, these border rules effectively mean that they would be abandoning their lives in Australia if they were to return to Indonesia. 

Difficult Dilemmas

Once our interviewees decided to stay, life isn’t necessarily smooth sailing either. While Australian media frequently presents financial issues (e.g. the unavailability of JobKeeper and JobSeeker to non-citizens and non-permanent residents), our interviewees saw the impact of lockdowns on their social lives and mental health as the most pressing difficulty.

“I’ve faced difficulties staying social and maintaining friendships,” said Calvin. “COVID amplifies my introverted personality thus making it harder for me to break free from my seclusive state and reach out to friends.”

Social isolation, of course, is not a problem unique to Indonesian youth. However, this problem is further amplified by the majority of Indonesian international students deciding to return home.

This is particularly evident in Reza’s story. He said, “I’m one of the only people from my friendship group who stayed behind in Australia to continue to study.” “The rest of my friends have graduated and returned to Indonesia so I don’t have that many people to meet up with now.”

The fact that current Indonesian international students are not able to return to Australia is compounded by the fact that new cohorts of Indonesian international students are not able to come to Australia yet. Hence, the Indonesian international student community is being reduced and not being replenished.

Interviewees found it particularly challenging during Indonesia’s deadly second wave. Following the Eid-ul-Fitr holidays in May, Indonesia experienced a massive surge in cases, peaking at 56,757 new cases on the 15th of July. The media was dominated by images of bed shortages at hospitals and exhausted healthcare workers.

“It was concerning,” said Calvin when asked about the second wave. “I was worried for my family and friends, and I know people who have passed away from the pandemic.” “It was disheartening to see my home country struggling.”

This sense of separation and concern was not only felt by international students. Indonesians who were born in or grew up in Australia felt similarly. Indeed, while the plight of international students have been widely covered in the media, the stories of second generation Indonesian immigrant youth are hardly ever told. 

Nicola (Perth, 19), who was born in Perth to Indonesian parents, said that she really missed the experience of visiting Indonesia in the holidays. She said, “my family and I used to go back quite often but more recently, COVID has prevented us from going back.” 

This inability to visit Indonesia is more than just a cancelled holiday for the many second generation Indonesian immigrants who live in Australia. It’s fundamentally an issue of identity. 

Gerry (Sydney, 21), who moved to Australia at a very young age, finds it very difficult to stay connected to his Indonesian roots. “I feel very little connection to Indonesia,” he lamented. “It’s quite difficult [to stay connected] when you haven’t seen any family from Indonesia for the past few years.”

Many Indonesian-Australians, like Nicola and Gerry, stay in touch with their heritage by going to Indonesia every few years to visit relatives and to soak in the culture. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has made it difficult for these youth to maintain and practice their Indonesian identity.

Difficult Truths

The biggest impact of COVID-19 on Indonesian youth in Australia, perhaps, is its effect on their perceptions towards Australia as a society. Our interviewees told us that the pandemic revealed a number of dark sides to Australian society which had previously been invisible.

One of the difficult truths that interviewees encountered was negative attitudes towards Asians.  Karen even told us that “I would love for the discrimination against Asian people and the racism behind the virus to be diminished.”

Fortunately, none of our interviewees experienced any direct racism. However, many recounted stories from their friends who have had a direct experience with racism.

For example, Reza told us about how his friend was called names like “Chinese dog” and shouted at in Melbourne CBD, to the point that she became afraid of leaving her home. Calvin also told us that he had seen multiple instances of Asian people getting their dogs kicked in public.

Second generation Indonesian-Australians have also encountered difficult truths as a result of the pandemic, despite having been born or having grown up in Australia. 

Gerry had a good impression of Australian society and enjoyed his childhood growing up in Australia. However, one event came as a shock to him and fundamentally changed how he viewed Australian society.

“I used to believe that Australians are generally considerate, knowledgeable, and reasonable,” he said. “However, seeing the countless lockdown protests made me reconsider.” Gerry used to see the conspiracy theories and right-wing narratives behind the lockdown protests as something confined to countries such as America. The fact that these trends emerged in Australia was deeply disappointing for him. 

Facing long lockdowns and strict mobility restrictions, lockdown protests became a common phenomenon in many cities across Australia. These protestors represent a fringe minority of Australians, most of whom broadly support the government’s COVID-19 restrictions. Despite this fact, these events are significant enough to fundamentally change perceptions on Australian society.

Silver Lining

So far, the picture has not been great. However, as the saying goes, “every cloud has a silver lining.” Interviewees mentioned a number of positive developments that came out of their difficult circumstances. 

One of these positives is a new found interest and knowledge in Australian politics. Karen said, “I didn’t care much [about Australian politics] before [the pandemic].” However, this all changed when COVID-19 struck, as she became “an avid reader of news and information sources.”

Reza had a similar experience. “I had no idea that state governments even existed before, but now, I know who all the Premiers are because they come up in the news so often,” he said.

Reza also noted positive aspects of Indonesian culture that were present in Australian society. “I saw some element of gotong royong,” he said, referring to the Indonesian cultural tradition of mutual assistance.

“It was really heartening seeing so many organisations give free food to struggling international students and I really liked how the community pulled together to support local businesses in Melbourne.” He said that he gained a newfound sense of community in Australia, one that he had never felt before the pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic was undoubtedly a challenging time for everyone. Indeed, in this article we have demonstrated the multiplicity of difficulties that the Indonesian youth in Australia have faced, despite the existence of a few silver linings that have been borne out of the pandemic. 

International students are set to slowly start returning to Australia from December this year and caps on returning citizens and permanent residents are slowly being lifted. Therefore, there is perhaps no better time than now for Australia to re-think how it can better support its international student and migrant communities as we transition to a post-pandemic world.

*Note: All names used in this article have been pseudonymised to protect the anonymity of interviewees.

If you are feeling isolated and would like support, please reach out to organisations such as Beyond Blue or Lifeline for assistance. Alternatively, sign up for AIYA membership to gain access to our community of supportive Indonesian and Australian youth. 

Written by Ghaby Gunawan and Hirzi Putra Laksana.