Policy, not prejudice, is the problem

ON LINE Opinion

IT sounds strange, but the attacks on Indian students in Australia really should have made for boring headlines. Despite the media reports of “curry bashings”, the true culprit wasn’t prejudice bubbling to the surface, but policy buried deep in our bureaucracies. Laws and regulations are to blame, and they need to be subjected to the same scrutiny as the spineless thugs who punched, kicked and stabbed their way into the limelight.

Although some of the bashing victims were racially abused, this does not mean their attackers reserve hostility exclusively for Indians. Violent gangs show a universal hatred of all types, whether homosexual, Muslim, Sudanese, Indian or Caucasian. Over the last few years, numerous people of various races, religions and sexual orientations have been set upon in the streets of Melbourne and Sydney. Forced into the same circumstances as Indian students, another minority group could have been targeted in the same way.

So why have Indian students been singled out? The answer could be that they have been placed in more vulnerable positions, more often. In a recent essay (PDF 3.34MB), Paul Rodan, Director of the International Education Research Centre at Central Queensland University, Melbourne, sketches a background to the brutal muggings and assaults. He thus provides a rough outline of how Indian students might have been left exposed to random acts of violence.

To obtain a study visa, international students must prove they can afford return air fares to Australia, plus course fees and living expenses while in the country. The Department of Immigration and Citizenship gives the sum of $12,000 per year to cover these costs. Realising this isn’t enough, the Department also allows international students to work part time, though no more than 20 hours a week.

The assumption is that $12,000 plus 20 hours of work per week is all international students in Australia need to cover accommodation, food, tuition, textbooks and transport. At current federal minimum wage, 20 hours’ work adds up to about $280 per week. With the remainder of the $12,000 after paying course fees, a student might have just enough to eke out a modest existence.

The problem, as Rodan writes, is that “There is a growing acknowledgement that the $12,000 requirement is being circumvented”. Perhaps the overseas education agent supplies “bogus bank documents” to secure the applicant’s position. Perhaps a student floods her account with borrowed money to print an impressive balance (a tactic many Australian students have no doubt employed to gain entry to the UK or the US). Or perhaps, as is often the case, a student obtains the money legitimately but is later pressured into returning it to needy family members back home.

Whatever the reason, large numbers of international students are struggling financially. And to make ends meet, they’re working more than their allowed 20 hours. Rodan, citing a separate study, writes “qualitative researchers seem in little doubt that such breaches are far from unusual”.

There is more at stake here than study visas, though. The students are also putting themselves in danger of exploitation. Illegal workers have no recourse when their rights are violated. What sane person would risk deportation by dobbing in a boss? And so these students have no choice but to take the menial, low-paying positions Australian citizens don’t want. In our capital cities, international students form an underclass of ghost-like servants, cleaning warehouses, vacuuming offices and guarding buildings while white collar workers sleep with their backs turned.

Many Indian students can’t afford the rent in expensive suburbs, and they don’t have the connections for inner-city sharehousing. So they’re forced to live in areas with low socio-economic status and high crime rates.

Landlords, sensing a captive market, offer crowded accommodation at exorbitant prices, sometimes partitioning bedrooms to charge double or triple the rent. After a long day studying and a gruelling night working, many Indian students retire to cramped rooms in violent neighbourhoods. And they have to catch public transport to get there.

Ajaydeep Singh was attacked in January last year after disembarking from a train late at night. He required six stitches to his left eyelid. Kanan Kharbanda was assaulted in March last year at Sunshine train station. He was left partially blind. Sourabh Sharma was bashed in May this year on a train travelling from the CBD to Werribee. The attackers broke his teeth and fractured his cheekbone. Another Indian student was hit over the back of the head in September this year after getting off a bus at Keilor train station.

This is the situation our policies have created. A situation where Indian students fly to Australia and fork out tens of thousands of dollars for the privilege of working illegally in the city, living precariously in the suburbs and fearing for their safety on the commute in between. The Victorian and New South Wales governments then refuse these students transport concessions on the grounds they’re not in “genuine need”.

Australia may or may not have a racism problem regarding Indian students. But one thing’s for sure. We definitely have a policy problem.