Adverse articulation: Third countries in China–Australia student migration during COVID-19

Authors: Heidi Østbø Haugen (University of Oslo) & Angela Lehmann (Australian National University)

Cite as: Haugen, H. Ø., & Lehmann, A. (2020). Adverse articulation: Third countries in China–Australia student migration during COVID-19. Dialogues in Human Geography, 10(2), 169–173.

DOI link:

Summary | The article discusses the effects of the Australian travel ban from China in the early phase of the COVID-19 pandemic. Australia’s massive export of educational services to China is dependent on the immigration of Chinese students. The education sector, therefore, feared that the ban on direct travel from China to Australia starting 1 February 2020 would have long-term negative effects. The entry ban notwithstanding, as many as 47,000 Chinese citizens managed to arrive in Australia during the following 7 weeks (Department of Education, 2020). They were allowed entry after making 14-day stopovers in third countries on their way from China.

Drawing on data collected on Chinese social media platforms, we show that the re-routing of students through third countries was made possible by an existing system of migration brokerage. Furthermore, the Australian government and educational actors were instrumental in finding ways to preserve revenues from Chinese students while externalizing the risk of importing the coronavirus.

Contribution | The concept of “adverse articulation” is employed to describe how third countries were unwittingly drawn into Australia—China value chains for educational services. The third countries experienced negative net outcomes and were in a relatively weak position to control how developments unfolded. Most of the students who circumvented the Australian travel ban travelled via Southeast Asia. The third countries’ assessments of the situation and capacity to respond to it varied greatly.

The Indonesian province of Bali, a popular destination for Chinese tourists, suspended all direct flights from China by 5 February 2020, and thus avoided becoming a transit point for Chinese travellers who needed a stop-over for visa purposes. Malaysia imposed an entry ban from severely affected Chinese provinces on 9 February, while Thailand stopped administering visas upon arrival to Chinese citizens on 11 March. By contrast, Cambodia did not impose restrictions on Chinese travellers, and Prime Minister Hun Sen condemned entry restrictions based on nationality as discriminatory.

The COVID-19 crisis continues to present places around the world with the same challenge: How to sustain desirable forms of mobility without generating undesirable co-mobility of the virus? The case of the rerouted students arriving in Australia February and March 2020 exemplifies how the ability to control mobilities is contingent on unevenly distributed technological, legal, financial, and societal resources.

This article is published in a special issue of Dialogues in Human Geography on geographies of the COVID-19 pandemic, July 2020. All articles are open access.