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Racism and violence: the new Australian way?

The recent spate of violence against international students reveals a collision of topical issues: racism, international education and, for many of us, an increasing concern at the unchecked rise of violence in Melbourne. The recent spate of attacks against Indian students have occurred in the midst of a period in which the media and societal attention is firmly focused on the economy.

As Australia focuses on how to minimize the impact of the global recession, international education should be at the very forefront of our national strategy. The revenue generated by the international student sector over the last decade has recorded staggering growth. The Reserve Bank of Australia now places education behind only coal and iron ore as Australia’s most important export and the incoming international student market is a now a more lucrative business than the leisure travel industry.Put simply, international education contributes many billions of dollars a year to the Australian economy each year. In 2008, there were 543 898 full fee paying international students in Australia. The figures released in the Access Economics Report in April 2009 reveal that international students and their families now spend $14.1 billion in Australia per year. Last year, $4.3 billion alone was spent on food and accommodation. The bulk of this money is invested in our economy through the support of families and sponsors overseas, especially considering that a student visa limits the hours a full-time student can work to only 20 hours per week.

According to Australian Education International figures for 2008, the total international student numbers included 97 035 Indian students, which represents a 54.2% growth on 2007 figures. The presence of international students generates jobs for Australian workers. In the long run, international students also develop bilateral links between Australia and the international community and our graduates powerfully promote Australia as a destination for travel, investment and trade. As this sector generates so many positive human and economic outcomes, the safety and well being of international citizens studying in our country should be a national priority.

The recent spate of violence in Melbourne and Sydney brings home the basic need to protect people in our society and the importance of a meaningful and immediate social, government and police action. More police on the streets, stronger penalties in our courts for violent offenders and a tougher stance –both legally and socially- on racism are all now required elements of the response. It bears mention that even if we could leave the human dimension of the recent attacks aside, in purely economic terms, a similarly deliberate physical threat to our export of coal or iron ore would trigger a coordinated response at the highest levels of the Australian political system. It is difficult to understand how the targeting of international students is not viewed with a greater sense of urgency.

The higher education providers in particular work hard to attract foreign students to our shores, as much on the basis of our much-lauded way of life as our world-class education system. This is in danger of becoming a hard sell. It needs to be acknowledged that Australia regularly struggles with perceptions of racism abroad. As Universities seek to attract foreign students at international education exhibitions, the question of the safety of our society has increasingly come to the forefront. The news reports from any recent weekend suggest we are struggling to respond to an intensifying culture of random and senseless violence even in order to protect our own interests. How then can we protect the interests of international students? These are people we have actively encouraged to come to our country, often at great personal expense, to study in our institutions.

The June 10 announcement by Chief Commissioner Overland that patrols will be stepped up at train stations is a first step but it is inadequate. The attacks are, as the Chief Commissioner has now acknowledged, racist in motivation. It is also inarguable that is this a much broader problem, for every incident that is reported a more ‘minor’ example of a mugging, jostling on a train, or racial taunting goes by without comment. As the media focuses on the consequent Indian student protests, the ‘protection’ groups forming at train stations and the gang elements of the situation in Sydney, we can all see the situation could escalate. But the simple fact remains that a group of students going to a train station in the depths of a Melbourne winter at midnight to ensure other students don’t get beaten senseless is reactive rather than proactive and if the police response had been as absolute and extensive as the situation warranted from the outset such things would not be occurring. The real problem is that these attacks reveal deeper tensions in our society.

Racism exists in Australia and these attacks are ugly and abhorrent examples of an opportunistic use of violence which is increasingly apparent in our cities. Australia should be determined to protect its guests on the premise of basic human decency, if this is not enough of an incentive, the economic cost to Australia should the international education sector falter must be considered. In the case of international students, it is incomprehensible that neither consideration appears to be enough of a motivator.

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