Understanding What’s Up Down Under
I visit Australia, on average, once a year and can claim that I’ve never had a single racist experience and I’ve been to nearly every major city and even the Outback. However, most of my time is spent in hotels, academic institutions, downtown urban areas and airports – the least likely places to face criminal behaviour if you discount the waiter spitting in your soup.I’ve also met a smattering of Australian Indians, none of whom have ever complained about being treated the worse for their ethnicity or skin colour.
While the exact statistics are murky, Indian students are clearly on the receiving end of bashings and robberies out of proportion to their numbers at least in the city of Melbourne and its environs. The Indian High Commission in Australia has actually tried to work out these numbers .
The bar graph for Melbourne dominates the statistical landscape. Racism has certainly played a part in some of these attacks and it was always a little weird that officials from the state of Victoria insisted for so long that it didn’t. It’s one of those things that are so subjective that it is pointless to insist it isn’t there. Ultimately any physical assault will be motivated by a multiple number of factors ranging from robbery to drunkenness. And xenophobia is a common enough part of the mix.
After talking to various people and reading what I can, my impression is that there seem to be more than one reason why Indians are ending up on the wrong end of Aussie fists. Thus, one Oz journalist told me how police told him that Indian students became known for riding trains with large sums of cash – possibly because it was earned by working hours beyond the legal limit – and became prime targets for muggers. Because Indian students study in the day, they do night shifts to earn money – so they drive taxis and work in petrol stations, vulnerable jobs at vulnerable times.
But at the heart of the problem is the sheer number and variety of students coming from India to Australia. As Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith mentioned in a recent speech about Indian-Australian relations, Indian student intake has been rising at a truly staggering 40 per cent a year since 2002. A researcher of Indian origin whom I met from Flinders University recently said the country has never experienced a flood of foreign students of this magnitude before.
That’s the numbers, but the shift that takes place from 2006 is that within this statistical jump is a huge surge in students going to private vocational training institutes. From about a quarter of Indian students in 2002, they surge to nearly half by 2008. Why? Because Australia reworked its immigration points system making it easier for foreign student who took hair dressing or cookery classes to get permanent residency. Some three-quarters of Indian students who come to Australia seek residency afterwards.
In effect, the Indian student story in Australia transformed itself into an Indian immigration story. But the barrier was lowered, so instead of the traditional professional middle-class Indian immigrant, the country began sucking in thousands of small-town, working-class youth – many who spoke poor English and behaved, from what more settled Indian-Australians told me, pretty loutishly. However, what really put the fat in the fire was these same poorer desis had to do dirty jobs to make ends meet. So they flooded the taxi ranks and 7/11 equivalents. They lived in bad neighbourhoods and took late night trains. Unsurprising, they found themselves in the social profile of an assault victim and, bang!, the attacks took off.
So what happens next? Policing and whatnot will presumably begin to eat into the assault numbers. More important will be closing that vocational student immigration door or at least reworking the point system. Australia has reportedly shuttered many of the fly-by-night educational centers which were designed to be little more than stopovers on the way to permanent residency. The Australian dollar is also near the level of its American counterpart eroding the cost competitiveness of an Oz college or university. We should see a drop in students, a drop in the students who really want to immigrate, and also the number of such crimes.
I don’t think Australians are any more racist than any other country. I also don’t think they have anything special against Indians. But a set of interesting circumstances seem to have led to the Student Bashing Craze Down Under 2009 and some good PhD dissertations are just waiting to be written.
Here is excellent study of this issue.