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A Home Away from Home? International Students in Australian and South African Higher Education

Racism and international students in Australia

Andrew Markus

Monash University

Violence against international students in Australia became an issue of major public controversy at times between 2008 and 2010, primarily focused on violence directed against Indian students and India-born persons who had settled in Australia. Acts of violence were depicted in sections of the Indian media as a direct result of entrenched racism in Australia. Indicative of extremist reporting, in February 2010 the magazine Outlook India featured a photograph of a battered young Indian man under the headline ‘Why the Aussies hate us’. A series of articles sought to provide answers. The magazine provided an account of students ‘trembling every time they step out on the streets of Melbourne late at night’ and concluded that ‘the poor Indian student largely depends on luck for her or his survival’ (Sharma 2010).

Government-level protests over the treatment of students were conveyed first by the Indian High Commissioner in Canberra, then the Indian Foreign Minister S. M. Krishna (who described one incident as a ‘heinous crime against humanity’ (Das 2010)) and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. In response, leading politicians from Australia, concerned at the threat to the developing bilateral relationship between the two countries and the threat to the education sector, attempted to calm tensions. They sought to assure the Indian Government and public that the attacks were isolated and did not indicate a pattern of socially sanctioned racist behaviour. In the second half of 2009, heads of missions to India included Premier of Victoria John Brumby, Minister for Immigration Senator Chris Evans, Foreign Minister Stephen Smith, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Education Julia Gillard, and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.


There has been a rapid growth in the number of international students studying in Australia, with an annual growth rate of 12 per cent between 1990 and 2009. The largest number of students was from China, but between June 2008 and June 2009 the rate of increase of Indian students outstripped the growth from China, with an increase of more than 40 per cent – from 65,200 to 91,400 (DIAC 2009). The largest proportion of Indian students, 47 per cent of total enrolments, was in Victoria, compared with 23 per cent in New South Wales and 17 per cent in South Australia (DEEWR 2009). Most of the reported attacks occurred in Victoria, which is consequently the major focus of the following discussion.

The problem of violence directed against overseas students did not involve only Indian students. In August 2008 the Chinese Consul in Sydney drew attention to attacks, reporting that he had surveyed 100 Chinese students and found that more than one in four had been a victim of crime: the homes of 20 had been burgled and six had been robbed, several at knife point (Levett 2008). It became clear over the course of the following months that Australian educational institutions had not provided adequate information to overseas students on how to minimise risks to their safety – knowledge concerning local conditions that was taken for granted by residents of the major Australian cities (EEWRRC 2009). The scale of the problem, however, was greater than could be remedied by instruction in local rules of safety.

To support their studies, many overseas students took on part-time employment in Australia and the nature of this left them particularly vulnerable to attack. An early flashpoint was sparked by a series of attacks on Indian and other South Asian taxi drivers. In April 2008 an estimated 300 Indian taxi drivers staged a public protest at Flinders Street station in Melbourne following the stabbing of a driver (Dobbin 2008). Shortly after, in May 2008, Indian taxi drivers in Adelaide staged a protest following a serious assault (Bhandari 2008).

In the period April to July 2009, attacks on Indians were reported almost daily in the Australian press. A survey by Spolc and Lee (2009) found reports of 14 serious assaults in May and June 2009: the severity of assaults left victims unconscious, in three cases with serious stab wounds; in another two cases property was burned by arsonists. At the end of May, a major public protest was held in central Melbourne, with a claimed 4000 participants, to draw attention to ongoing violence; protests on a smaller scale were held over the following two weeks in the Sydney CBD and the suburb of Harris Park (Brown 2009).

In the last days of 2009 and the first of 2010, the killing of two Indian men further escalated the level of public concern. A young man, Nitin Garg, was stabbed to death while on his way to work in an outer Melbourne suburb and the partially burnt body of Ranjodh Singh was found in the vicinity of the New South Wales country town of Griffith, where he was employed fruit picking (Hunter and Millar 2010; O’Loughlin 2010; O’Malley 2010). While it was such individual cases that attracted media attention, consideration of crime statistics is required to provide a full understanding of the extent of attacks. At present only limited data are available.

There has been a limited release to the media of Victorian crime statistics by ethnicity of victim, without disaggregation by crime category. However, statements by the Premier and Chief Commissioner indicate the existence of separate statistics on assaults and robberies. The publicly released data indicate that 1082 ‘crimes’ were committed against victims classified as ‘South Asian’ in the 2006–07 financial year; this increased by 40 per cent in 2007–08 to 1447 (more than four per day), and by a small margin (5 per cent) to 1525 in 2008–09 (Stewart 2010).1

Statistics for 2009–10 have not been released. The Victorian Commissioner of Police, Simon Overland, justified the withholding of crime statistics on the grounds that they were not reliable. Such statistics, he stated, were based on a subjective assessment of the victim’s race as in the broad category ‘South Asian appearance’, which included people from countries other than India, such as Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Nepal. He did indicate that Indians were over-represented (given their proportion of the population) as victims of robbery, but not in assaults, which were the major focus of media attention (Rood and Ham 2010; Wilson 2010).

In response to the inadequacy of crime statistics, the Australian Institute of Criminology has embarked on a project to enable precise estimation of victimisation rates among international students. The project draws on police records and is being undertaken with the support of key government stakeholders interested in the international reputation of Australia – the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and state and territory police agencies. Its findings are yet to be released (AIC 2010).

Student perceptions of violence

What of perceptions of violence? How do perceptions correlate with public reporting of the scale of violence and police records? A range of survey data is available, but it is of mixed quality. There is no definitive survey.

Simon Marginson and his colleagues headed a wide-ranging project on international students in Australia. One component of this research involved interviews, mostly conducted in 2005, with international students at nine Australian universities. This work was conducted well before the eruption of major public controversy over the safety of overseas students. It found that 90 per cent of those interviewed indicated that they felt ‘safe and secure in Australia’, although six per cent of respondents subsequently modified their response, thus yielding 84 per cent with an unqualified indication of sense of safety (Marginson et al. 2010, chapter 9).

A 2006 Australian Education International survey, with 7267 respondents, yielded a similar finding: 85 per cent indicated satisfaction with life in Australia; 87 per cent indicated that they would recommend studying in Australia (AEI 2007, 6–8). A larger, online survey was conducted for Australian Education International from late 2009 to mid-2010, completed by over 50,000 students, including 36,300 students in the higher education sector (AEI 2010). Eighty-six per cent of students in the higher education sector recorded satisfaction with safety and security, compared with 88 per cent in the vocational (VET) and 80 per cent in the English Language Intensive (ELICOS) sectors. Eighty-six per cent were satisfied with life in Australia (AEI 2010, 6, 10).

Another recent study, conducted from June to August 2009 and headed by Professor Hurriyet Babacan, was undertaken at Victoria University. There are a number of technical weaknesses in the survey component of this study and it was presented as a ‘scoping’ or exploratory work, rather than one that could be seen as definitive. For example, of the 1013 respondents, a disproportionate number were from Victoria University (VU) and the number of respondents from the three major universities – Melbourne, Monash and La Trobe – seems to have totalled less than 50 (this figure is surmised from a graph; no tables were published with the report). Further, female students were over-represented in the survey. This survey produced a lower number who regarded their environment as safe – of international student respondents, over three in four (78 per cent), indicated that they saw Melbourne as ‘a safe place to live’ (Babacan et al. 2010).

Violence in Australian cities

The issue of student safety needs to be understood not in an ideal context, in which life in major cities is presented as a picture of safety and harmony, but in the real world, which is characterised by significant problems of violence – a function of alienation of young men resident in the poorer areas of the major cities, with anti-social action fuelled by ready access to alcohol and, to a lesser extent, by access to drugs.

Crime statistics are published on a regular basis by the Australian states. In Victoria, in the category of crimes against the person, assault is more frequent by a large measure than robbery. In 2009–10 the rate of assault was 636 per 100,000, compared with robbery 57 per 100,000. This is the average rate across the state. Within some regions the rates are much higher, notably in the lower socio-economic areas where many students find accommodation. For example, in the local government area of Greater Dandenong the rate of assault is 1068 per 100,000 and that of robbery 116 per 100,000 – double the state average. In the central Melbourne area, the location of a number of night clubs and also an area of high-rise accommodation catering to the student population, assault rates are more than four times the state average at 2758 per 100,000 and robberies are more than six times the average at 362 per 100,000 (Victoria Police 2010).

The issue of crime and policing is a major political issue in Victoria, such that it became a focus of the election campaign of the Liberal Party in November 2010. Leader of the Opposition, Ted Baillieu, sought to establish his credentials with a call for tougher sentencing of those found guilty of crime and for greater resources to be devoted to policing. There are two key issues of relevance to international students: safety on the streets at night and safety on public transport at night. There is much evidence of a high level of general concern in Victoria over both of these issues.

The Scanlon Foundation surveys, conducted in 2007, 2009 and 2010, gauged levels of concern. The 2009 survey found that nationally 25 per cent of the population feared becoming a victim of crime, but in areas of low socio-economic status and high immigrant concentration, close to 50 per cent of the population was concerned; 40 per cent of respondents nationally indicated that they did not feel safe on the streets at night, but a much higher 65 per cent in areas of low socio-economic status and high immigrant concentration (Markus and Arnup 2010).

Other surveys have explored sense of safety on public transport. The 2008 Victorian Perceptions of Justice Survey (conducted for the Department of Justice) found that 69 per cent of women and 49 per cent of men did not feel safe at night on public transport (Department of Justice, Victoria 2008). But in some regions the proportion would seem to be even higher. A confidential police survey (released under Freedom of Information) reported in August 2010 that 77 per cent of passengers on two suburban rail lines (Lilydale and Pakenham) indicated that they were likely to be verbally threatened at night, 50 per cent indicated likelihood of physical threat, and 80 per cent reported that they constantly encountered drunks on trains (Rolfe 2010).

The highest level of concern was reported in a survey commissioned by radio station 3AW and released in November 2010, in the context of the election. This survey seems to have tapped into the section of the community most concerned about policing and level of crime. It was based on a questionnaire mailed by Chandler research company to 65,500 homes, which elicited 6300 responses. It found that 89 per cent of respondents did not feel safe using public transport at night, 88 per cent agreed that the level of violence had increased in the past five years and the same proportion supported more expenditure on policing (Chandler Total Communications Solutions 2010; Rood 2010).

The extent of violence against overseas students

At the 2006 Census there were 53,000 Victorian residents born in India and a further 31,000 born in Sri Lanka, a total of 84,000. Given the rapid increase in the number of Indian students after 2006, the number of residents from the Indian subcontinent can be expected to have been close to 100,000 in 2010. Crime statistics for Victoria (discussed above) indicate an annual rate of assaults numbering 640 for a population of 100,000.

Analysis published by the Sydney Morning Herald in January 2010 made the claim that Indians living in Victoria are two and a half times more likely to be assaulted than non-Indians. This calculation is probably misleading, as it is based on an under-count of the population from the subcontinent, but even if correct it is not beyond the expected level. The reporter made the mistake of using state-wide figures for comparison, not data that take into account relevant situational factors (Welch 2010).

As has been noted, the incidence of assault is higher in some areas of low socio-economic status, occurs more often late at night and disproportionately involves young men. These factors are particularly relevant to the experience of overseas students. They are more likely to find accommodation in areas of low socio-economic status, where rental is lower. Overseas students, particularly men, are more likely to be on the streets late at night because of the nature of the work that is available to them, and are more dependent on public transport (Parliament of Victoria 2010). When these variables are factored in, a multiplier in the range of three or four (or higher) needs to be applied to state average data, exclusive of considerations of ethnicity or race, yielding an expected annual incidence of assault well above 2000 cases, which seems to be consistent with publicly released data.

The point has been made that many assaults are not reported to police by overseas residents for a number of reasons, including lack of trust in the police and concern that if students draw attention to themselves it may lead to complications with the Immigration Department, posing a threat to the renewal of student visas or applications for permanent residency. While this reality needs to be considered when interpreting data, it is also the case that across the community there is under-reporting of cases of assault, particularly where the assault is of a relatively minor nature, so that crime statistics will always under-state the extent of criminal activity.

Violence and discrimination – patterns by ethnicity

The above discussion of factors explaining levels of violence is confined to general situational indicators, such as age, nature of employment and evening use of public transport. A further significant variable is ethnicity.

The ethnic pattern of discrimination is indicated by the Scanlon Foundation surveys, which ask respondents if they have experienced discrimination because of their ‘skin colour, ethnic origin or religion’ over the last 12 months. In the 2007 and 2009 surveys, some 10 per cent of respondents indicated experience of such discrimination, in 2010 a significantly higher 14 per cent (Markus 2010, 13).

Reported experience of discrimination is higher in surveyed regions of low socio-economic status and high immigrant concentration and among the overseas born. In the analysis of the 2009 survey, findings were considered for specific birthplace groups: those born in Australia, China and Vietnam, the Middle East, India and Sri Lanka, and other non-English-speaking countries. Reported experience of discrimination over the previous 12 months was highest among those born in India and Sri Lanka, closely followed by those born in China and Vietnam, then respondents born in the Middle East and other non-English-speaking countries (Markus and Arnup 2010, 66).

Survey data from 2010 have been disaggregated by age for three groups: those born in Australia, overseas in an English-speaking country and overseas in a non-English-speaking country. Experience of discrimination on the basis of ‘skin colour, ethnic origin or religion’ over the last 12 months was 11 per cent for the Australia born, 16 per cent for those born overseas in an English-speaking country, and 21 per cent for those from a non-English-speaking country. A similar pattern of differentiation is indicated in surveys conducted from 2001 to 2008 by the team led by Professor Kevin Dunn, University of Western Sydney. The Scanlon Foundation surveys also indicate higher levels of discrimination among respondents aged 18 to 34: 19 per cent for the Australia born, 29 per cent for those born overseas in an English-speaking country and 33 per cent for those from a non-English-speaking country (Scanlon Foundation 2010).

These findings point to a complex picture, in contrast to the one-dimensional depiction of a racist Australian society. A range of situational factors explains the higher incidence of violence and discrimination experienced by Indian students. One of these is intolerance and bigotry, but not institutional racism. In a major immigrant city such as Melbourne there are ongoing problems not easily resolved for residents, police and government.

The Scanlon Foundation surveys have provided the best available data on the extent of intolerance in Australian society. Intolerance is found in all national groups. Research undertaken by the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia indicates that the proportion of the intolerant within the countries of the European Union ranges from a low of four per cent of the population to a high of 27 per cent. The intolerant are characterised by their opposition to the presence of minority groups, their demand that immigrants assimilate to the dominant culture, and their opposition to government anti-racist policies. Intolerant attitudes are more widely held by people living in Mediterranean and Eastern European countries and are at the lowest levels in Scandinavian countries (Coenders et al. 2005; Markus et al. 2009, 145).

Australian society is characterised by a relatively low proportion of the intolerant, but they nonetheless constitute a significant number. A consistent finding of surveys conducted over the last 30 years is that close to 10 per cent of the population is intolerant and a further 30 to 35 per cent is tending to intolerance (Markus et al. 2009, 148). Thus when the 2010 Scanlon Foundation survey presented respondents with the proposition that ‘accepting immigrants from many different countries makes Australia stronger’, 11 per cent ‘strongly disagreed’ and 19 per cent ‘disagreed’, a total of 30 per cent in disagreement; 12 per cent of respondents indicated that they felt negative towards young people coming to study in Australia. The intolerant make up a higher proportion of the population in regions of high immigrant concentration and among specific birthplace groups, including second and third generation Australia born in areas of high immigrant concentration (Markus and Arnup 2010, 68–71).

Some Australian commentators endorsed the view presented in the Indian media that Australian governments were in denial in their failure to grasp the extent of racism faced by the overseas students. They included General Peter Cosgrove, who spoke about ‘a strand of racism or pockets of racism in Australia’ (Cosgrove 2010) and the Victorian Liberal leader Ted Baillieu, who stated in 2009: ‘We have a law and order problem with record levels of violence. And we have a problem with racist behaviour and racial violence … [We are becoming] a community divided where people live afraid to leave their house at night, wherein an Indian, Chinese or African man or woman is afraid to ride on public transport lest they be assaulted’ (Lauder 2010; Rout 2010).

The counter argument, presented by then Premier of Victoria, John Brumby, was that Melbourne has policing and crime problems no different from other major cities, and that while some attacks have had a racial motivation, race is not the major factor explaining the incidence of violence – that assaults on overseas students (and overseas-born residents of the state), although not acts of robbery, have not been disproportionate, given their numbers in the population (Brumby 2010; Sheridan 2010).

There is truth in both arguments: levels of violence need to be understood in a broad context, as Premier Brumby argued, but it is also the case that the Victorian Government and police took too long to grasp the reality of a newly developing problem.

There have been a few cases of violence leading to death. In some of these police investigation produced evidence of inter-ethnic violence, a dimension missing from some sensationalist media reporting of Australian racism. Thus in the case of the young Indian man whose partially burnt body was found in the vicinity of Griffith, the police charged three of his Indian acquaintances with the crime. In June 2011 the case was before the New South Wales Supreme Court, with trial date still to be set (ABC Riverina 2011). In a second case involving the death of a young Indian child whose body was found in a field on the outskirts of Melbourne, an Indian who shared the house with the child’s parents was charged and subsequently pleaded guilty to the crime (AAP 2010a) Another case that gained international attention involved an alleged incendiary attack. The police subsequently charged the victim, alleging that he accidentally sustained burns while setting his own car on fire with the object of making a fraudulent insurance claim. At his trial he entered a plea of guilty and received a suspended sentence of imprisonment (Anderson 2010; Sydney Morning Herald 2010). While in one of these cases a verdict is still to be reached, care needs to be taken before making claims concerning perpetrators and their motives (Age 2010).

There is evidence, however, from police and other sources that youth gangs operated at a small number of suburban railway stations looking for Indian students to attack. There was a phenomenon known as ‘curry bashing’ in these areas, but not the organised political violence perpetrated by neo-Nazi groups in some European cities.

Indicative of the level of the problem, the Age reported in December 2008 that:

More than 100 men marched on Sunshine police station last night to protest against what they claim is police inaction on crimes targeting people of Indian background. The group met outside an Indian supermarket in a street where a man was savagely beaten during an armed robbery on Monday night. They claim that local police took at least 50 minutes to respond to an emergency call at 6.40pm, despite being told that between 10–15 men were attacking the store … They also called for justice for the victim, Sukhraj Singh, who was last night in a serious but stable condition in the Royal Melbourne Hospital. ‘We want a personal police presence, and a change in police attitude,’ spokesman Vinodh Bommrasipet said. ‘They treat us like animals.’ Dayajot Singh, who has been living in the Sunshine area for three years, said he had heard of more than 20 cases during that period in which police had failed to take satisfactory action on violent attacks against people of Indian background. (Battersby 2008)

Bigotry is to be found in all sectors of society, including the police force, validating some complaints made by Indian residents (Sheridan 2010).2 In March 2010 it was made public that a series of racist, homophobic and pornographic emails had been circulated in the previous year by a number of police officers. Chief Commissioner Simon Overland told ABC Radio that the incidents were ‘extremely serious … If the Victorian public were aware of the nature of the material it would cause significant concern’. One of the officers under investigation subsequently resigned and committed suicide. By November 2010 eight officers had been dismissed, some demoted and others fined. It was reported that about 30 officers were under investigation by the Office of Police Integrity (Roberts 2010).

The Victorian Government was too slow to recognise the magnitude of the growing problem and to react with necessary force and resources, in a context in which police resources were strained to cope with violence and crime across the community. In July 2009 there was unambiguous evidence of a belated government response:

Victoria Police have been sending high-profile teams, including officers on horseback, to train stations like Sunshine and Footscray, where Indian students have been attacked. The police union and local residents groups have long been calling for more police in the western suburbs, and late at night on the weekends, Victoria Police are delivering, for now. (Epstein 2009)


Four key points emerge from this analysis.

First, violence towards Indian and other international students is not to be explained simply in terms of Australian racism.

Second, there are substantial problems of assault and robbery in major Australian cities. The impact is felt across the community, not just by students. Concerns over levels of safety at night in public places and on public transport are widely held. Overseas students are caught up in the problems facing regions of a major city such as Melbourne and some crimes that at first sight appear to be racially motivated are found to have more complex explanations. Thus in one incident in October 2010 an Indian student was subject to serious assault in a western Melbourne suburb by an assailant who repeatedly shouted at him, ‘Shut up, you Indian motherfucker’. At the trial in the Victorian County Court a psychological report indicated that the assailant was a violent person looking for a fight with ‘little regard for who [his] target is’ (AAP 2010b).

Third, data on the incidence of crime that has been publicly released is not of sufficient precision to establish that the level of assault and robbery experienced by international students is at a significantly higher level than that experienced by other Australians similarly located: that is, males aged in their twenties, living in areas of low socio-economic status and high immigrant concentration, working in some relatively high-risk occupations and reliant on the use of public transport at late hours. It is also of relevance to note that survey data indicate that over 80 per cent of overseas students feel safe in Australia.

Fourth, levels of intolerance and bigotry, while not particularly high in Australian society, are of sufficient importance to be one in the range of explanatory factors required to account for the level of assault and robbery perpetrated on Indian and other international students. Bigotry acts as a channelling mechanism, directing the attention of the socially alienated towards those culturally distinct and vulnerable, legitimising the targeting of minorities. It can also impact on allocation of priorities within police forces struggling to cope with levels of criminality.


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1 In newspaper reports, the statistics referred to ‘crimes such as robbery and assault against persons of Indian origin in 2007–08’. There are two problems with these data: statistics on robbery and assault are distinct categories, yet by some means the data are presented in aggregated form and, according to the statement of the Chief Commissioner, data were collected for assaults on persons of ‘South Asian’ appearance, not Indian, hence the text reference in this paragraph is to ‘South Asians’. Greg Sheridan (2010) observed: ‘The state’s Chief Commissioner of Police, Simon Overland, has been all over the shop on this issue. First there were no ethnic statistics, now there are statistics everywhere (none of them remotely reliable)’.

2 Greg Sheridan (2010) wrote: ‘I have interviewed Indian students who have tried to report serious assaults to the police and been brushed off’. There is much similar evidence on the public record.

A Home Away from Home? International Students in Australian and South African Higher Education

   by Ilana Snyder and John Nieuwenhuysen