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Jakarta Post

Should I stay or should I go?: Overseas students in limbo as global lockdown fears mount

  • Dian Septiari
    Dian Septiari

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Thu, March 19, 2020   /   08:07 am
Should I stay or should I go?: Overseas students in limbo as global lockdown fears mount Chemistry professor Luca De Gioia records his lesson in an empty classroom to stream it online for his students at the Bicocca University in Milan, Italy, on March 2. Authorities all over the world have closed schools and universities in order to prevent the spread of the highly infectious coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). (Reuters/Guglielmo Mangiapane)

Indonesian PhD student Tengku Munawar, 30, has found himself facing one misfortune after another since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus that causes the disease COVID-19.

He had been looking forward to spending time with his family in Japan, having booked his mother and sister tickets to Osaka for Thursday so they could attend his graduation ceremony early next month. Even his brother came to visit him as early as March 9.

But as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to sweep the globe, Tengku has had to make do with shelved plans and a more uncertain future, after the Indonesian government urged its jet-setting citizens to return from abroad to avoid more imminent travel restrictions.

“Having studied in Japan for six years, I had been looking forward to this April graduation ceremony. Of course, I wanted this moment of finally parting with Japan to be special,” he told The Jakarta Post on Wednesday.

“What can I say? All the plans I made since last year are falling apart because of the virus outbreak.”

The Japanese government has ordered the closure of schools and has advised workers to work from home – something of an anomaly in an otherwise overworked society. Events that would have attracted large masses have also been canceled.

“That includes my graduation ceremony,” said the Osaka University graduate in international public policy.

“At that time I began to panic, and consulted with the family about their upcoming visit. By mid-March the situation got even worse, with many countries announcing quarantines,” he said.

Tengku eventually canceled his family trip, and his brother bought himself a flight back to Indonesia on Wednesday. Unfortunately for him, stacks of paperwork from the university and for residence administration prevented Tengku from joining the rest of his family.

“I really want to go home as soon as possible but I can’t,” he said. “But even if Indonesia has plans to impose a lockdown, I'll be ready. I just hope the coronavirus can be controlled soon.”

On Tuesday, Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi advised Indonesian citizens currently traveling abroad to “return to Indonesia at the earliest possible time to avoid further travel disruptions”.

She announced that Indonesia had suspended all visa-on-arrival and other visa-exemption facilities for all countries for a period of one month beginning on Friday. Denial of entry was also expanded to include more countries in Europe, including the Vatican, Span, Germany, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, where the number of positive virus infections have spiked.

As an international student dependent on a scholarship, 25-year-old Vicky Nauli of the UK-based Institute of Development Studies was very confused as to what to do with this new information. "With the Chevening [Scholarship] we cannot go home for more than 30 days, so we don't know what to do,” Vicky told the Post on Wednesday. “We are pretty much in limbo because no one can guarantee if we can get back [to the UK].”

She said her family back home were concerned because the number of cases in the UK was much higher than in Indonesia, which made them believe it was safer to stay with her family.

The number of COVID-19 cases in Indonesia jumped to 227 with 19 fatalities as of Wednesday, whereas the UK has 1,950 cases and 71 deaths, according to official tallies.

Stella Nau, the president of the Indonesian Students Association in the UK (PPI-UK), said some students had decided against returning to Indonesia altogether, even as universities in the UK have canceled classes and advised their students to go home.

“This is mostly from the advice from our scholarship providers such as Chevening and Endowment Fund for Education [LPDP], which disburses monthly stipends and requires students to remain in the country until the program ends in October,” Stella told the Post.

Similarly, another Indonesian PhD student said that the Foreign Ministry’s advice on Tuesday was a cause for concern, especially for those who worked, studied and lived in different places.

Doni Ropawandi, 26, a student at Malaysian National University (UKM), said his plans to present his dissertation next Monday had already been canceled when Malaysian authorities announced a country-wide lockdown earlier this week. Now he is being forced to choose between staying with his wife in Taiwan, returning to Malaysia to complete his studies or going back home to Indonesia.

“I was actually planning to go back to Indonesia, but the Foreign Ministry’s advice got me worried that if I go back and Indonesia decided to impose a lockdown, then I’d be stuck,” Doni said on Wednesday from Taiwan.

He noted that the Taiwanese authorities had raised the warning level for Indonesia, which meant that anyone returning from the country to Taiwan would have to self-quarantine. If he were to choose between the three locations, Doni said he felt more comfortable staying in Taiwan.

In a notice published on Monday, the Overseas Indonesian Students’ Association Alliance (PPI-Dunia) called on all students to coordinate with Indonesian missions in their respective countries of residence and follow the advice of local authorities, echoing a statement Minister Retno said during a recent interview with the Post.

“We also urge the Indonesian government to act through their missions abroad to oversee the health of students and all Indonesian citizens, and stand ready to provide assistance where it is needed,” said Fadlan Muzakki, coordinator of PPI-Dunia.

An official from the Foreign Ministry reiterated on Wednesday the foreign minister’s advice for Indonesians, urging students to stay put in their study destination to anticipate any possible travel restrictions.

On Friday, Retno advised all Indonesians abroad to stay in their countries of residence, giving reassurances that the government “has entrusted them to their respective governments”.