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Racist violence against international students in Australia: facing the facts September 19, 2011

Posted by southasiamasala in : Guest authors, India , trackback

Guest authors: Ashutosh Misra and Simon Bronitt

The Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC), the premier research agency in Australia, has recently completed a study of violence against international students. Based on reported crime to police, victimization studies and homicide monitoring data, as well as the data-matching of visa records from the Department of Immigration, the AIC report paints a picture of the scale and profile of crimes of violence (robberies and assaults) against international students in Australia. The impetus for the report stemmed from a spate of attacks on Indian students that received extensive media coverage in Australia and in India, which became the focus of political and diplomatic exchanges between the respective governments in 2009-10.

The report has some reassuring take home messages. First, Australia, relative to other destinations, is a safe place for international students, with lower levels of crime targeting them than other popular student destinations, such as the UK and USA. Homicide is relatively rare in Australia compared with other destinations, and from the AIC’s National Homicide Monitoring Program, it appears that of the ‘eight Indian students killed since 1990, none involved racial vilification or discrimination’. The profile of the crimes reported in the AIC study also showed that international students were vulnerable to attack at certain times and certain places – often working late in service industries (taxi and fast food) and therefore exposed more frequently to alcohol-fuelled violence. These insights allow safety messages for students to be targeted by universities and local police. But the key question, which raised the concerns of the Indian students in 2009, was whether the attacks occurring were racially motivated?

Sadly, on this critical issue, the AIC study shed little or no light on that question. The principal reason – the necessary data are simply not available. Why is this so? Policing and government agencies do not collect these data. Victims are not questioned about the racial aspects of their victimization. There are sensitivities on this issue, with the study suggesting ‘direct questioning of victims on these matters may intimidate victims from coming forward and therefore reduce reporting’. What is striking is that the existing victimization study shows that there is no such reluctance – indeed ‘overseas-born respondents were more likely than their Australian-born counterparts to report to police when they were the victim of an assault or threat, robbery and theft of personal property’. This reason, we speculate, may be related to insurance requirements to report crime in order to make a claim, or advice from consular authorities. International students do not seem to be reticent in coming forward and would not likely be deterred if police explain that the purpose of asking race-related questions are important to collecting data, and also as part of the brief of evidence that would go to proving racial-motivation, which may lead the prosecutor to choose a more serious charge or the judge to impose a heavier penalty on offenders.

Perhaps, the most depressing aspect for scholars working in this field is that the failures in collecting the data on the racial profile of victims were highlighted two decades ago in a National Inquiry into Racist Violence by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC). The Inquiry recommended with exceptional foresight, that these data must be collected nationally. Like the AIC in 2011, the 1991 HREOC study into racist violence revealed the lack of systematic data and made the following recommendation:  “Data on racially motivated offences should be collected and analysed at a State and Federal level. Both the United States at State and Federal level and the British experience indicate that the collection of such data is feasible and necessary. There are no technical reasons why such data could not be collected by Australian jurisdictions”.

Sadly, the HREOC recommendation was ignored. Such data serve to gain knowledge about the changing profile of the racial violence against Australian citizens, residents as well as our international student visitors. But also has important legal purposes. The legal landscape since the 1991 HREOC report has changed significantly – many Australian jurisdictions have new crimes of racial vilification with enhanced penalties for racially motivated crime. It is also now a serious federal offence to urge violence between groups based on racial or religious grounds.

Our criticism should not detract from the take home message. As the 1991 HREOC Inquiry concluded “racist violence on the basis of ethnic identity in Australia is nowhere near the level that it is in many countries. Nonetheless it exists at a level that causes concern and it could increase in intensity and extent unless addressed now”. This concern is as true now, as it was then. The AIC study has revealed that a more innovative research framework is required to uncover the nature and extent of racism in attacks against international students (being only one subset of a larger ethnic minority living in Australia). The question that needs addressing is not solely whether international students are attacked more or less than their Australian or overseas counterparts, or the Australian population, but to gather data on whether or not the attacks were racially motivated. This methodology would need to analyse court transcripts, interview criminal justice professionals (police, prosecutors and judges). Certainly a larger and more challenging study for the AIC, but essential in our view, is required. Two decades ago, the holes in our knowledge were identified by HREOC. Two decades on we are still grappling for answers for lack of data.  It is clearly time to face the facts!

Ashutosh Misra, Research Fellow and Simon Bronitt, Director, Centre of Excellence in Policing and Security, Griffith University.

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