Article by High Commissioner Peter Varghese- 1 February 2010
What is happening in Australia?
The widespread media coverage of attacks on Indians in Australia has raised several understandable questions. Are Indian students safe in Australia? Are Indians being singled out? Why are these attacks happening? Are they racially motivated and what is being done to address the problem?
Crime is never easy to dissect and crime statistics even more so. We know that Australia is a relatively safe place with homicide and assault rates well below the global average. But we cannot prove with existing data, one way or another, whether Indian students are more likely to be assaulted than students from other countries. Also, with the number of Indian students growing by nearly 400 percent in the space of a few years the number of Indians affected by street crime has also increased in absolute numbers.
The overwhelming majority of the half million foreign students in Australia, including the vast majority of Indian students, have a safe and positive experience. That may be cold comfort for Indian victims of assault and their families back home, but it is nevertheless an important point to make.
Many of the Indian students in Australia are under financial pressure. Their visa requires them to have enough money in the bank to cover their costs before they come to Australia. But in many cases this does not happen. And when the pressure is on you to earn money quickly you do two things.
First, you seek out night shift work because that is easier to get and may pay more. This means that you are more likely to be in a higher risk job such as driving taxis late at night. Second, you look for cheap accommodation which may put you in a higher crime neighbourhood and commuting to it at an hour when attacks are more likely.
None of this excuses attacks. And no one should ever blame the victim. But it might help explain why some of these attacks are occurring.
Are the attacks racist? For the most part they are the ugly face of urban crime committed by criminals from a wide variety of racial backgrounds. Many of the assailants have been juveniles or young adults acting in an aggressive and predatory way. But in some cases the attacks have been accompanied by racial abuse: something for which the Australian government has zero tolerance and the great majority of Australians condemn as completely unacceptable.
If race is the motive, it will come out in the course of investigation and trial. We need to allow those processes to run their course and not make instant judgements based on initial media reports which may turn out to be wrong. This applies as much to the media as it does to those investigating these crimes.
So what is being done? A lot. We have increased police resources. In Melbourne, where many of these attacks have occurred, we have put in place special action to target crime hotspots and to run a “safe stations” program. We have given police wider powers to search for weapons without a warrant and to move unruly people on. We have introduced legislation to allow our courts to impose tougher sentences for hate crime. We have set up special consultative arrangements for the police to liaise with Indian and other international students, including a hotline for students who need advice or help.
And we are going after the perpetrators. Already in Victoria alone some 45 people have been arrested for crimes against Indian students or nationals. The courts are dealing with the culprits, including in one case a sentence of 18 years for a vicious attack against a person of Indian origin. In one recent assault case, the assailant was given a three month prison sentence within twenty four hours of the attack. The Victorian police are giving a very high priority to finding the killer of Nitin Garg. And our Prime Minister has set up a special task force to deal with these attacks, chaired by the National Security Adviser and involving all the state governments.
As a government and a community we take these attacks seriously. We cannot promise to stop urban crime — no government can credibly do that. But we are determined to address the problem, deal with the perpetrators and provide a safe and enjoyable environment for all our foreign students.
It is neither fair nor accurate to paint these attacks as the actions of a racist country. Australia has travelled a long way on race. We have gone, in the space of single generation, from White Australia to one of the most culturally and racially diverse societies in the world. Rapid social change has not been without its tensions but, overall, the record is one of impressive harmony. And that is not a journey which can be made by a racist nation.
Peter N Varghese
Australian High Commissioner