Sunday, January 22, 2012

Dirty racist Australians

A few years ago I was surprised to see uproar on discussion forums with lots of Indians complaining about Australia racism. There had been a number of high-profile criminal attacks on Indian students studying in Australia, and these were considered indicative of a wider Australian racism towards Indians.

I was surprised first because the Australians were being criticised for being racist specifically against Indians. When I lived for a few months in Sydney I was close to the Chinatown; Sydney is very cosmopolitan but the Chinese were by far the most visible non-white minority. If the Australians were attacking ethnic minorities I would expect there to be a big uproar on behalf of the Chinese as well as the Indians: it was difficult to imagine ignorant Australian racists about to attack an Asian student and then: 'No, wait! He's Chinese, let him go.'

For this reason, I was a bit unconvinced by the hype. Meanwhile the anti-Australian rhetoric was rising; I even saw a few Indians arguing that Australians were descended from convicts and thus racist aggression is in their blood. (I'm no cricket fan, but I gather there was irritation about some poor sportsmanship by Australian cricketers around the time too, and Australians were getting a reputation for boorish and aggressive behaviour.) When Victorian Police Commissioner Simon Overland claimed that Australia was safer for Indian students than India was, he was greeted (understandably: his comments came a week after an Indian student called Nitin Garg was murdered in Victoria) with astonished irritation and rage.

The narrative stirred up a lot of negative interest about Australia in India; here is a Google Insights for Search graph showing the frequency of 'racist Australia' searches in India since 2004:
So what was happening? There were certainly attacks on Indian students in Australia, but there were attacks on non-Indians too.

In 2011 the Australian Institute of Criminology produced a 191-page report called Crimes against international students in Australia: 2005–09, in an attempt to shed some light on the issue. Some results:
Overall, international students from the five source countries generally experienced incidents of physical assault at significantly lower rates than in the general population in each state/territory jurisdiction in 2009. This was true for most nationalities in most jurisdictions and was a generally consistent finding for each year since 2005. In some cases, comparisons between students from different countries showed that for some years, in some jurisdictions, Indian students had experienced higher rates of assault than students from China, Korea, Malaysia and the United States.
First: foreign students are at a lower risk of attack than others. Second: despite my scoffing earlier, Indians are at a uniquely high risk amongst international students.
The nature of assaults (day of week, time of day and location) experienced by international students was generally consistent between students of different nationalities and the reference Australian populations. The notable exception was that a greater proportion of male Indian students were assaulted in commercial (retail) locations and in, or near, public transport facilities.
Regarding robbery:
In 2009, the rate of robbery victimisation among male Indian students in some jurisdictions was higher than the corresponding state average for the reference Australian population—a finding that was consistent for most years since 2005. Chinese male students were also at higher risk of victimisation compared with state averages in some jurisdictions, as were Indian female students.
And theft:
There was little difference in the rates of other theft both among the international student groups and between the five student groups and the general Australian population (unweighted Australian comparisons) in most states since 2005. The exception was for Indian male students who had higher rates of other theft than students from China, Korea and the United States in some jurisdictions.
The authors then added that the report's available data isn't enough to understand the motivation of attacks. The slightly disproportionate victimisation of Indian males might have been because of some strangely specific anti-Indian racism, or...
The types of employment, areas of residence and evening activities (including both shift work and use of public transport) are specific areas of risk for international students that appear to explain some of the incidence of robbery for Indian students, in particular....

Indian students in particular, are known to have a greater proficiency in English and, as such, appear much more likely than students from east Asian countries to find employment in the service sector. This includes service stations, convenience stores, taxi drivers and other employment that typically involves working late night shifts alone and come with an increased risk of crime, either at the workplace or while travelling to and from work.

Further, the limited availability of on-campus accommodation for higher education students, and the lack of on-campus accommodation for vocational students, have led many to secure private rentals in inner urban areas as well as to rely on public transport in areas with higher concentrations of crime. Together with their over-representation as employees in the hospitality and services sector, students are therefore faced with multiple risk factors that increase their probability of victimisation irrespective of their racial appearance. The finding that there was a substantial over-representation of Indian students in retail/commercial robberies lends support to this view.

So victimisation may be deliberately racist, or simply opportunistic. The authors added that a mixture of the two could sometimes happen, saying that the carrying of electronic goods by Indians along with a perception of Indians as 'soft' targets were cited as motivations. (I'm reminded of the 'Barbarians' gang in France who abducted, tortured, and murdered a young Jewish man because, they said, Jews were 'loaded'.)

What we're left with is that most international students experience unusually low rates of criminal victimisation, while male Indian students experience rates similar to the wider Australian population. There are a range of possible reasons for the latter discrepancy, including complex and subtle issues to do with the locality and behaviour of the Indian student subgroup. There might have been some racist motivation, in some cases.

But the report turns the angry media narrative on its head. Life for Indian students in Australia was no more dangerous than it was for regular Australians. There was little or no issue; Indian students are just people and people get attacked. The murderer of young student Nitin Garg turned out to be a 15-year-old who remarked to a friend that 'that bloke's phone looks nice' when they saw Garg walking through a park on the way to work at 9:30pm. He stabbed Garg in an opportunistic robbery attempt.

Today the excitement has largely passed but some rumours and blanket denunciations of Australian society continue. From The Herald Sun, just days ago:
Melbourne was gripped by a wave of racist assaults on Indian students in 2009, which has been blamed for a drop in the number of students from that country enrolling here this year.
A wave of racist assaults? What wave? When did it start? Has it passed?

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