Down Under: Yes, it's all a matter of race!

OUT IN A NEW WORLD: Three newly enrolled Asian students at the engineering department of the University of New South Wales in Sydney. DH Photo

After almost two months of frenzied publicity over alleged racial attacks on Indian students in Australia, an uneasy calm prevails. While hurt students are nursing their wounds, those unhurt are thanking the lord for keeping them safe. And, the soul-searching Australian government is looking for effective remedies to heal the country’s devastatingly hurt image.

Setting up of a taskforce for international students and a hotline have been immediate steps, followed by the visit of an Australian delegation to India, to assert most vociferously that “Australia has no tolerance for racist attacks.”

Assaults on overseas students, including Indians studying in Australia, are not new.

There have been many incidents in the past, but perhaps the ferocity and frequency of these recent attacks over the past two months, followed by rather frenzied hype in the Indian media, brought the students’ woes to the fore. The attacks — racial or otherwise — seem to be the tip of the iceberg of larger problems that the country has to address to cater to the needs of tens of thousands of overseas students. Recent victims like Sravan Kumar, Saurabh Sharma, Rajesh Kumar, Baljinder Singh or Abhishek Patel et al are not just the recipients of physical assaults, they also share with their fellow students the same story of struggle and strife.

Thus the real issues confronting Indian students have to be looked at objectively in a much larger perspective, than making hasty and uncharitably sweeping statements denigrating the whole of Australia as a racist country. This is a grossly unfair indictment, as most cases of reported intolerance took place only in Melbourne, Victoria, and partly in Sydney, New South Wales. Other states (Queensland, Tasmania, Western Australia, South Australia) and the Territories (Northern Territory and Australian Capital Territory), happily, did not have such ugly episodes.

Soft targets
A cross section of students, past and present, I spoke to said they had never felt victimised, because of the colour of their skin and accent. What made them soft targets for mugging were their deplorable circumstances, such as working late night (at petrol stations, take away eateries and small stores) and travelling long distances on public transport to the outer suburbs of their residence. In the absence of affordable accommodation near the college campuses, some of the students unavoidably obliged to return home well past midnight, after finishing work, become the unfortunate victims.
Making things worse at the campuses is the growing general indifference and hostility towards new immigrants due to an increased influx of overseas students to the country, many students felt. “While many Australian students love exploring culture of our region by backpacking through Asia, they sadly ignore the opportunity at the campus,” rued one such student. Away from loving parental care at an early age of, say, around 17-18, some Indian students also reported to have received rather lukewarm support from the Indian community.

While private colleges saw them as mere cash cows, they were left to fend for themselves in culturally and economically unfamiliar surroundings. According to a leading local Indian newspaper, quoting police figures in Victoria, 1,447 people of Indian origin became victims of crimes (such as robberies and assaults) in 2007-08, an increase from 1082 the previous year. While nearly 70 per cent of assaults go unreported, there have reportedly been 70 cases of documented assaults against Indian students in the past 12 months. The ‘Sun Herald’ also reported that between May 8 and August 2 last year, from amongst the 12 reported robberies on taxi drivers in Flemington, Moonee Ponds and Ascot Vale, 10 victims were of Indian origin.

These attacks may have had an element of racism in some cases as indicated in a rather delayed admission by Victorian police commissioner, Simond Overland. But what is, perhaps, more serious than racist feelings arising out of swelling numbers of Indians, or of academic rivalry or of superiority of colour, is the growing abuse of education by the so-called providers of education. More importantly, the disguised immigration racket luring hundreds of Indian students enroll for rather low quality courses (cooking, elementary computing or hospitality, etc) in areas of trade supposedly experiencing supply scarcity in the Australian economy.

Permanent Residency
Unlike in the past when only a few brilliant and bona fide students came to Australia for higher studies, there has been an avalanche of Indian students, in recent years, exploiting the liberal visa policy for education. Gone are the days when overseas education was mostly about getting higher education and experience, not available in the home country. But now the whole emphasis has shifted. Far from returning to the home country with the newly-acquired distinctions, the ultimate aspiration of a typical Indian student has become the acquisition of the Permanent Residency (PR) of Australia.
Thanks to the flexible fee-paying options, the overseas students don’t have to return immediately to their home countries upon finishing their study programmes. Until a few years ago, if they wished to migrate to Australia, they had to first return to the home country and then apply for PR from there. But a change brought about, during John Howard’s prime ministership, made it possible for students to apply for residency while still in Australia. Since then certain types of trade courses have mushroomed for a higher weighting assessment for a visa.

So, in a way, education sector has become the gateway to migration! It has offered a lucrative bonanza, on a platter, to private education sector and their unscrupulous immigration agents, not only in India but elsewhere in Asia as well. It did not take much time to witness the number of foreign students — Indonesian, Malaysian, Filippinos, Vietnamese, Indo-Chinese, etc — opting for vocational courses getting almost trebled within three years. Quantity has taken precedence over qualitative education.

While swelling numbers of ‘cash cows’ started pumping in their resources to the Australian economy making it a over $16 billion industry now, the consequences of compromising with campus conditions and being inadequately prepared to handle an ever-growing student population, are now gradually surfacing. With the ultimate objective of PR in mind, Indian students invariably do not report assaults, racial or opportunistic, to the police for the fear of getting an adverse remark from PR authorities.
The students do not have the time, or the inclination, to establish longstanding relations with locals as they have to work hard to earn, at times, beyond the permissible limits of working not over 20 hours a week, to help defray living expenses and repay education loans. They often land up in overcrowded colleges, with poor infrastructure, sadly missing the opportunity of a good education. Many Indian parents invest heavily to give their children a lifetime opportunity to see their dreams come true but what they are buying actually is not education but only visas and entry permits.

After the recent episodes of violence against Indian students and Indian media’s aggressive coverage, Australian government has sprung into action. Obviously, no government would like to jeopardise its $16 billion a year ‘education-export industry’ by any negative publicity. Enrolling themselves to courses catering to specific Australian needs, overseas students (including Indians) also fill up the ranks of a lower middle class labour force.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd vehemently condemned the attacks on Indian students and the delegation led by Colin Walters to India tried to reinforce Australia’s care and concern for guest students. Let us hope the taskforce set up by education minister Julia Gilard to check crime against overseas students is effective. The results would be far more rewarding if the government contemplates measures to curb the nexus between vocational education and immigration. Racism is not visible in its vociferous form in Australia like apartheid in South Africa, or other places in the world.

Nevertheless, its silent or subtle presence could be equally damaging if the complex issues revolving around overseas students are not addressed properly. For it is not a matter of racial or opportunistic attacks on Indians alone, it is more a pointer to “much broader social problems,” including the simmering resentment within different migrant groups in a multicultural society of Australia.

Education in Australia

*There are some 90,000 students of Indian origin, most of them living in Melbourne and Sydney

*A majority of them doing a variety of courses in accounting, business management and hospitality catering specifically to Australian needs

*More than half of the Indian students live in Melbourne, Victoria, where most of the recent alleged racial attacks took place

*Australia’s education sector is its third largest export earner (after coal and iron); generated $15.5 billion in 2008.

*About 30 pc of foreign students study in mainstream universities, which have adequate security

*Others, who study in smaller institutes, some even mere shop fronts, are more vulnerable

*Indian students increased from 4,000 in year 2000 to over 90,000 in 2009, an unusual 22 fold increase in nine years

*Of the 7,000-odd taxi drivers in Melbourne, 5,950 are Indians and many of them are students
(Courtesy: The Indian Down Under,June-July 2009)

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