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Indian students' safety: Let's cool it

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COMMENTS

2 June 2009 14:41

It is hard to know how to contribute constructively to the debate about the safety of Indian students in Australia. As someone long committed to the Australia-India relationship, I am dismayed about what has happened. Like the overwhelming majority of Australians, I deeply sympathise with those students who have suffered.

The challenge now is to keep cool heads in determining how to turn this situation around.

It looks like no government involved – whether state of federal, Australian or Indian – anticipated that the bad experiences of a number of Indian students could accumulate into a serious problem between the two countries.

One factor is that the Indian media – the world’s largest – has an unparalleled ability to make a story huge. Assertions and generalisations can quickly mix with hard facts to produce a dynamic of outrage that no government can ignore or control. For instance, whether or not Victoria Police response to a student protest was the right one, the pictures can hardly be expected to play well on India’s dozens of satellite television channels.

The basic fact is that a rising number of Indian students in Australia – including about 70 in Melbourne over the past year – are experiencing violent crime. The absolute figure remains relatively small, considering there are around 97,000 Indian students in Australia, but there seem to be some worrying trends. An element of racism has been credibly reported in some instances, particularly in a brutal stabbing. 

It would be foolish for Australian authorities to dismiss Indian students’ concerns that they might be targeted because of their ethnicity. Each incident deserves a thorough and open-minded investigation, not only to find the culprits but to build a picture of their motives.

Yet it helps nobody when journalists give the impression that all such attacks are racially motivated, or that a new instance of violence against an Indian means that somehow a wave of racial attacks ‘continues unabated’. Even that article suggests that, behind the headlines, the motives of most of these attacks probably have more to do with money than race. In order to afford living and studying in Australia, many foreign students need to work in part-time jobs late at night, or live in relatively unsafe neighbourhoods, or both. These circumstances make them vulnerable, including to opportunistic and violent robberies. 

A remedy to all of this will have many parts. Much will rest in the hands of Australian state governments. Belatedly, but thankfully, the Victorian Government is strengthening laws against crimes with racist overtones. Given that, however indirectly, state governments benefit financially from foreign students, the least they could do is ensure that some police resources are dedicated specifically to those students’ safety.

Universities should urgently assess if there is more they can do for international students’ welfare, for instance in providing on-campus accommodation, ensuring that all new arrivals receive detailed advice about how to maximise personal safety, or offering hotlines or counselling. Given how much money these institutions make from overseas students, they need to be absolutely honest with themselves about whether they are investing enough of these funds to create a safe and welcoming environment.

But the media too has its part to play. India’s powerful fourth estate could do more to help its audiences understand the nature of the problem, and to keep some perspective about the positive experiences of the hundreds of thousands of people of Indian origin who choose to live in Australia, rather than running easy headlines that tarnish all Australians with the crimes of a few.

Photo by Flickr user Grumbler, used under a Creative Commons license.

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