Monday, June 08, 2009

Australia's Indian Students - a wake-up call for Australia

I haven't commented to this point on the attacks upon Indian students in Melbourne because I lacked information. I have also been cautious about some of the racist interpretations because of previous experience of the way this distorts facts.

Yesterday at a rally in Sydney an Indian community leader tried in vain to persuade a crowd of angry international students that a series of violent attacks against their fellows was not about them. "I strongly believe that it's not a racial issue; it's a law and order issue and it has to be tackled," the secretary of the United Indians Association, Moninder Singh, told the students.

This is a very important issue from the viewpoint of the students and indeed the nation. So to educate myself I have spent the last hour looking at some of the stories over the last year in Melbourne, Sydney and Newcastle.

The first thing to say is that it is quite difficult to get the facts. I wanted to know which groups were being targeted and by whom. A simple enough question, but apparently our anti-discrimination laws mean that that this type of ethnic based data is simply not available.

I think that Mr Singh is right when he says that this is first a law and order issue. However, there is more to it than this.

To begin with, the heart of the problem lies in a growing failure of Australian social policy. Over at least the last few decades, Australia has worked quite hard to develop an under-class marked by low education, high unemployment and high welfare dependency. This feeds into violence, including violence against perceived outsiders. This violence is concentrated in particular areas and also fluctuates.

It appears that Indian students are especially vulnerable because they are clearly identifiable, while many work at part time jobs, live in lower rent areas and travel at night.

According to Dr Yadu Singh who heads a committee formed by the Indian Consulate in Sydney to address student welfare and safety, there have been numerous robbings and random bashings on Indian students at night and in daylight, on trains and near their homes, often in western Sydney. Dr Singh said the attacks had in Sydney been happening for about four years, and were a mixture of opportunistic robberies and outright racist attacks. Dr Singh also pointed to a particular problem, the failure of victims to report incidents. This made them easier victims and delayed recognition of the fact that there was a problem.

Looking at the reports, I formed the impression that we are dealing with what are essentially young thugs. In Newcastle this week, for example, charges were laid against six youths, aged 12 to 16, involved in what police said were unprovoked attacks on foreign students at Newcastle University.

I make these various points because while at least some of the attacks are racially motivated, the core of the problem appears to me to be not racism as such, but deprivation and group or gang behaviour.

If Australia is going to invite large numbers of foreign students to study here, then we have a duty as hosts to be hospitable and to look after them. Our schools and universities also have a duty of care towards their foreign students. So what can we do?

Part of the answer to current difficulties obviously lies in better policing. Note I say better policing. This is not the same as more policing, although this may be required too.

Better policing starts with information. This has to be provided by the affected students, as well as the universities and various student bodies.

Part of the answer also lies, I think, in better information and support for our overseas students themselves. Part of this is simply street smarts. Whether we like it or not, and I do not, there are parts of our cities and towns where I would not go or not go at certain times. Part lies in providing greater support to assist students to feel at home and, most importantly, safe.

I know from my own contacts as well as media reports that the universities are aware of this. However, there is a greater problem in the various private colleges who actually lack the resources (and sometimes the inclination) to properly support their students.

I also think that we need to look at the absolute number of international students that we can comfortably accommodate in general and within individual institutions. Don't get me wrong here. I like, for example, the hustle and bustle of Kensington and Kingsford associated with large Chinese student numbers at the nearby University of New South Wales. It's just that it can get a bit over-whelming.

I am not suggesting quotas on international students. I am suggesting that individual institutions have to make judgements as to the number and proportion of international students that they can accommodate and properly care for. This includes ensuring that there is adequate student housing. They also have to recognise the impact of their activities on surrounding communities.

Australia is at the stage now where a small but significant proportion of its very large international student community, perhaps as much as 20 per cent, are dissatisfied in some way with their student experience. This needs to be addressed.

To end, I see the current difficulties being experienced by a still small minority of Indian students as a wake-up call. We must address the problem and address it now.

Postscript

There has been a lot of media coverage on this issue this morning.

As you might expect, and this demonstrates the need for caution in commenting, the discussion drew out a number of additional issues, including actions that have already been taken.

I didn't hear anything that would make me alter my post, just glad that I was cautious in my remarks.

8 comments:

Legal Eagle said...

Great post Jim. I think you are right when you say there is more to these attacks than simple racism. It is also about unscrupulous thugs targeting a specific group of people who they have identified as 'easy pickings' for theft - obvious outsiders who might not be aware that it isn't safe to walk in a particular area alone at night.

I also agree with Neil that we should be careful to provide for the welfare of international students who come here. Some of the private colleges are terrible. Some poor students get totally ripped off. It's also about making sure that students get proper orientation and education about what is safe and what is not.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, LE. I think, too, that Neil is right: they are our guests.

rummuser said...

Jim, thank you for this perceptive. I have been to Neil's blog and have left the following comment which is as applicable here as there.

"Neil, I am very impressed with this post and intend sending links via email to a lot of my friends, as I shall of Jim's post on the same subject as well.

In India, it has become a highly emotive issue, particularly after Australia refused to supply uranium to India, and the last cricket tour to Australia not exactly having been very pleasant. The use of the word "racism" is, I suspect, for want of a better substitute rather than in the way that it normally means. There is however the feeling, at least from the letters to the editors in the various papers, that Australia has become anti Indian on many fronts and this is one more proof of that happening.

Quite how all this will play out is anybody's guess, but I suspect that at least in the immediate future, the number of students from India going to Australia to study will come down substantially."

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Jim Belshaw said...

A bit depressing, Ramana, to think that this is all being seen as an anti-Indian pattern. I just don't think that there is a specific anti-Indian stream in Australia,although some individual Australians may hold anti-Indian views.

One of the difficulties is that actual number of incidents appears to be quite small. There are something like 90,000 Indians studying in Australia, I heard this number but haven't checked it. I suspect that the actual chance of an Indian student suffering harm are the same as, may even be less than, those holding for the general community.

All that said, it remains true that the students are our guests and Australia has a responsibility to look after them.

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