AUSTRALIA: Racial attacks hit billion-dollar industry

Violence against foreign students has created a crisis for Australia's federal and state governments with India and now China warning they will not allow their nationals to be subject to racist attacks. As selling education to foreigners is Australia's third largest export industry, said to be worth $15.5 billion a year (US$12.5 billion) to the national economy, the threat of sanctions from the two largest source countries is alarming.

A Chinese embassy official in Canberra said last week his government was "intervening" to ensure the safety of its students: "There are more than 130,000 Chinese students in Australia [and] they have on the whole had a good study and living environment in Australia but attacks on Chinese students have occurred in recent years."

The official told Fairfax newspapers that the Chinese embassy and consulates around Australia attached high importance to the safety of their students. He said it was hoped the government would provide better protection to international students "to ensure their legitimate rights in Australia".

The unexpected Chinese reaction follows an outcry by the media in India after a series of attacks on Indian students that have left some stabbed and in hospital. Most attacks have occurred in Melbourne where Indian students tend to congregate but incidents have also been reported in Sydney and Brisbane. As Australia is one of the world's most multicultural nations, with a third of its people either born elsewhere or the children of immigrants, the sudden surge of violence against international students has startled the authorities.

Media coverage in Australia appears to have encouraged some thuggish elements to vent their anger on the growing number of Indian students concentrated in certain of Melbourne's inner suburbs but attacks on Chinese have rarely been reported.

Indian students held a large protest rally in the centre of Melbourne late one night last week that led to a confrontation with the police and quite possibly increased the resentment some Australians feel against their presence. A significant proportion of Indian and Chinese students enrolled in universities, but especially in vocational training colleges, are seeking a quick means of gaining permanent residence and they are becoming much more visible than at any time in the past.

The reaction to the attacks in the Indian media, however, has been hysterical with violent protests and effigies of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd being burnt. The Times of India last week ran a story on its website under the headline: "Indian students relive horror stories in Australia" while the Federation of Western India Cine Employees called for a boycott of Bollywood films in Australia.

Prime Minister Rudd and state premiers have expressed their concern at the attacks and promised to take whatever action is necessary to prevent the violence. Rudd has promised to hold a "roundtable" with international students this month to discuss their study experience, including welfare and safety. Federal Parliament is currently debating a student services and amenities bill that includes international students and their welfare.

The vice-chancellors' organisation, Universities Australia, condemned the attacks on students and re-stated a commitment to ensuring staff and students of all backgrounds continued to enjoy a safe environment.

UA Chief Executive Dr Glenn Withers said all universities sought to create a safe on-campus environment for everyone through measures including 24-hour security, escorting and shuttle buses, CCTV cameras, well-lit precincts and incident reporting. Off campus there was extensive liaison with Australian authorities, Withers said.

Last Thursday, deputy vice-chancellors responsible for international students met in Canberra to discuss student welfare amid the growing concerns over student safety. The senior executives also met ambassadors from several countries, including the Indian High Commissioner, to discuss existing and future initiatives to assure the safety of international students.

"Injury to even one student is totally unacceptable and a strong and constructive response to any attack, however motivated, is essential," Withers said. "We know through surveys of the many, many thousands of enrolled and graduating students that the overwhelming experience of international students is positive, and this should be the outcome for every student."

* See UNI-LATERAL: Racism is often a two-way street