Australian Racism and Overseas Students

The weekend murder in Melbourne of Nitin Garg, an ethnic Indian living in Australia, is a tragedy that appears likely to further complicate attitudes and relations between the two countries. Concerns about a series of attacks on Indian students – particularly in Melbourne – have led to a string of visits to India by senior Australian government figures, and an inquiry by a Senate Committee.

While every crime should be treated on its merits, and it should not be automatically assumed that the latest crime was racially motivated, the history of past attacks, and arguably the slowness of Australian authorities to take the issue sufficiently seriously, means that just a single serious incident such as this has the Hindustan Times reporting that, "Indian government officials 'will be forced' to issue a (travel) advisory in the form of a warning to those who want to work and study Down Under, if the (Australian) authorities there did not take stern action this time."

Garg, a 21-year-old permanent Australian resident and an accounting graduate, was stabbed to death as he walked to work through a park in the West Footscray area of Melbourne. He staggered to the fast-food restaurant where he worked, then collapsed. He died later in a local hospital. His personal belongings, including his cell phone and his wallet, were left untouched, presumably ruling out robbery as a motive. He apparently had been threatened and attacked before on a train, according to his roommate.

Local resentment has been rising over the fact that international students are increasingly taking low-wage service sector jobs in convenience stores and fast-food restaurants, among others, from local residents. Although international student visas nominally restrict overseas students and their spouses to working no more than 20 hours a week, large numbers of students work off the books and are willing to work cheaper than the locals. Because they are subject to possible visa cancellations if they are caught, the overseas visa holders by and large are underpaid and employers profit by ignoring occupational health and safety regulations and overtime rules. Police, however, say that while some of the assaults have been racially motivated, the majority are perpetrated by thugs preying on easy targets.

The number of Indian students studying in Australia has skyrocketed since 2003, from 30,000 to nearly 100,000. They tend to live in cheaper areas where violent crime is more prevalent. There have been multiple attacks on Indian students including one who was assaulted by five people in 2008. In May, thousands of students protested against what they charged were racist attacks, blocking streets in central Melbourne after an attack that required the admittance of one of the victims to the Royal Melbourne Hospital. Tourism executives, according to local media, have predicted that students coming to Australia will fall sharply, costing as much as A$70 million in lost revenue.

The Chinese government has also expressed concern about attacks on students. China makes up the biggest proportion of overseas students studying in Australia, with 130,000 in the country. The situation has grown serious enough that Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has expressed concern, visiting India in an attempt to assure potential students that security has increased to protect them.

Read the rest of this article here in Asian Correspondent, our sister publication