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Onus on everyone - Australian government is doing its bit; students should take more care PDF Print E-mail

© Neena Bhandari, The Week

As the rays of the sun penetrates the morning fog, students hailing from 161 nationalities, including India, alight from trams, buses and trains, to make their way to the many sandstone university buildings dotting the Melbourne skyline.

Among them are some 47,000 Indian students, comprising 47 per cent of the total number of Indian international students enrolled in Australian educational institutions, and in the process making them the largest unit of overseas students in Melbourne, which has been in the news for the spiralling attacks on Indian students.

The violent attacks, some racially motivated but largely opportunistic crimes, in Melbourne and Sydney have created outrage back home, straining the bilateral relationship, threatening Australia's $16-billion education export industry and blemishing Australia's reputation as a convivial and safe study destination.

Many of the full-fee paying overseas students, who feel they have long been treated as cash cows, have held rallies in both cities demanding an overhaul of Australia's education, migration and employment policies and swift action from the police to bring the perpetrators of crime to justice. However, revenge attacks by Indian overseas students are sparking fears of inter-communal tensions in Sydney and Melbourne, which are home to over 200 nationalities, including the 200,000-odd Indian diaspora.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has warned against forming vigilante groups as two Indian men were arrested recently after a second night of protests against the alleged racial attacks in the western Sydney suburb of Harris Park. "I fully support hard-line measures in response to any act of violence towards any student anywhere Indian or otherwise. It is unacceptable for any student group to believe they can take the law into their own hands and engage in so-called retribution attacks or vigilante action", Rudd said.

Incidents of assaults and robbery have been strongly condemned at the highest level and the authorities in both countries are calling for calm and restraint. "Australia is certainly not a racist country. I have studied here and now my children are going to a grammar school here. We have not faced any discrimination", says Sushil Sharma, director of community services, Federation of Indian Associations of Victoria (FIAV), who migrated to Melbourne in 1977.

This is a common refrain from Australian-Indians living across the country, who are much-respected professionals and business people, and their children are mostly high academic performers.

Payel Banerjee, 19, who came to Melbourne at the age of 2 from Mumbai, takes the train from her home in eastern suburbs to Monash University in the city before dawn and after dark. "It is as safe as any other city in the world", Payel says. As in other global cities, there are certain areas, which may be deemed more perilous than others.

Financial needs compel international students to work at superstores, gas stations and fast food joints at odd hours, rent cheaper accommodation in distant suburbs, travel late at night in public transport and then walk home on poorly-lit streets. A large number of them drive taxis at night to pay for their accommodation, fees and everyday expenses.

"Working and commuting late at night makes international students more vulnerable. It might help if they work locally and travel with other friends or colleagues", suggests Payel.

Yashwant Desai, who came to Australia from Mumbai in March 2005 as a student, says, "I have sometimes experienced racism at work, but I don't think the attacks on Indians students are racially motivated".

In 2007-08, there were 36,765 victims of crimes such as robberies and assaults, of which 24,260 were Caucasian victims and 1,447 were people of Indian origin, according to Victoria police sources. Australian Human Rights Commissioner Tom Calma said he had received anecdotal information over the last four years about increasing levels of hostility towards international students.

But Ruchir Punjabi, who joined University of Sydney in 2005 and is the president of the University Union, writes in the Sydney Morning Herald, "Four weeks ago, I was attacked by two 16-year-old boys seeking money as I made my way back from work. It was a mugging attempt in the Sydney suburb of Glebe. I don't believe it was racially motivated, and similarly, I suspect most attacks on international students are not. We must be careful not to assume they are, just because the victims are of a different race to their attackers".

The total number of Indian students enrolled in Australian educational institutions till March end 2009 was 68,713. While 22,387 are enrolled in higher education, 47,067 are in Vocational and Training (VET) courses and 60 per cent of Indian international students in Victoria undertake programmes of study in the VET sector.

"The vast majority of Victorians welcome Indian students but we do recognise that there are some times and places where Indian students are more vulnerable and that's a concern we've been working to resolve. Any attack on an individual because of race, culture, gender or appearance is disgraceful and unacceptable", says Victorian Premier John Brumby.

"It's paramount that their educational experience and life experience in our state is positive, productive, safe and enjoyable and we are committed to working not only with the Indian community but with the whole community to achieve this goal", Brumby said.

Indian community leaders are asking the government and educational institutions to provide accommodation closer to or on campus so that students don't have to travel long distances at odd hours and security on public transport. They are also urging the police to be sensitive to people of different ethnic backgrounds.

Says Payel, who has friends from various nationalities, "Studying with boys and girls of different communities, people with disability, exchange and international students, has been a culturally enriching experience". She feels Indian international students should build on relationships with locals as well as their own counterparts; this will present a stronger united force and safety net against criminals.

A large number of overseas students are also seeking permanent resident visas on completion of study and some say the locals are worried about jobs going to them as recession hits home. Indian community members also point out that some recently-arrived Indian international students are rude, loud and behave improperly in public places, and do not have proper English language skills to communicate in this largely monolingual country.

"The Australian government and educational institutions, together with assistance from the Indian government, should evolve an orientation programme to enhance cultural awareness of overseas students before they come to Australia. In a multicultural society like Australia, increasing awareness and knowledge of different ethnic languages and culture would go a long way in helping rid any racist elements", says Mala Mehta, founder and coordinator of the Indo Australian Bal Bharathi Vidyalaya Hindi School in Sydney, who migrated to Australia in 1983 with her husband and two children.

In recent years, the controversial incarceration of Indian doctor Mohammad Haneef and the 2007-2008 India-Australia cricket series blighted by allegations of racism have irked India.

But branding Australia as an intolerant society can adversely impact on the well-settled diaspora here and make the bilateral relations frostier. Foreign Minister Stephen Smith has reiterated that Australia takes these attacks very seriously and the country is committed to taking its relationship with India to the front rank of Australia's bilateral partnerships.

The fight for safety and rights of international students must not be besmirched by playing the race card, as we live in multicultural global societies today.

Measures taken by Australian government:
1 Has set up a new task force under National Security Adviser Duncan Lewis to coordinate the government's response.

2 Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Education Julia Gillard has announced that international student representatives would be invited to a roundtable to discuss issues affecting their study experience, including accommodation, safety and welfare.

3 The Victorian government has committed to amending sentencing guidelines in Victoria to make violence specifically targeted against individuals on the basis of their race, religion, sexuality, age or disability an aggravating factor in recognition of the wider adverse social impact that so-called hate crimes can cause.

4 Extra police including mounted police and police helicopters, dog squads, increased surveillance and mobile patrols are being deployed at problem railway stations in Melbourne's west and south-east.  

5 A helpline, staffed by trained volunteers fluent in English and Hindi, has been set up to assist Indian students who are victims of crime.

Recent attacks on Indian international students:
June 2009: Kamal Jit, 23, was found unconscious and bleeding after being attacked while walking home from St Albans railway station in suburban Melbourne. Twenty-two-year-old Vikrant Rajesh Ratan's car was torched in Melbourne's Springvale suburb. A 21-year-old Indian student suffered minor injuries in an attempted armed robbery in the car park at Chisholm Institute of TAFE in Melbourne.

May 2009: Sourabh Sharma, 21, was bashed and robbed by seven men on a Melbourne train. Balinder Singh, 25, was stabbed in the abdomen with a screwdriver as he handed over his wallet to two thugs. Shravan Kumar, 25, and three friends were attacked by a teenage gang armed with screwdrivers. Shravan was stabbed in the head and his condition is said to be critical. Rajesh Kumar, 25, suffered 30 per cent burns when a petrol bomb was hurled through his window in Sydney. He was saved by his flatmate, who stifled the flames by wrapping him in a blanket.

December 2008: Sukhraj Singh attacked in an Indian grocery in Sunshine; was in coma for weeks.

September 2008: Former Australian Medical Association president Mukesh Haikerwal assaulted in Williamstown.

April 2008: Student and taxi driver Jalvinder Singh stabbed by a passenger.

March 2008: Student Kanan Kharbanda partially blinded in a gang attack at a railway station.

© Copyright Neena Bhandari. All rights reserved. Republication, copying or using information from any www.india-voice.com content is expressly prohibited without  the permission of the writer and the magazine through which the article is syndicated.   
 

 
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