Attacks on overseas students in Australia

by Barrister Harun ur Rashid | May 31, 2009 6:20 pm

The recent attacks on overseas students in Australia is a big surprise for everyone. Australia is a multicultural country and one feels at ease in living in Australia. In any big city, people of all races are visible and intermarriage between various ethnic groups has been a regular feature.

A new report in January 2009, shows 44 per cent of Australians were either born overseas or have at least one foreign-born parent. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) released its comprehensive report of the 2006 census, and it revealed a quarter of the population, or 4.4 million people, were born overseas.

On top of these numbers, 20 per cent of Australians had at least one parent who was not born in Australia. While many more people arrived from Europe (47 per cent) than Asia (27 per cent), the report also revealed a generational change, with the average age of European-born Australians being 57 compared with Asian arrivals, who are on average a much-younger 37.

Asia is fast becoming a rival to Europe as the dominant source of arrivals; of people who arrived in Australia between 2002 and 2006, six of the 10 most common birthplaces were Asian countries.

Furthermore younger generation in Australia is tolerant, enlightened and exposed to the outside world. They don’t care very much for the birthplace of a person. They love Asian food and Australian cuisine has changed dramatically during the last two decades catering the tastes of all ethnic groups.

Furthermore many Australian students spend summer holidays exploring the culture of Asian region by backpacking through Asia. Bangkok, Phuket, Penang, Bali Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi have become popular tourist destinations for young Australians.

Australia has attracted thousands of students from various countries in the universities from Asia and Pacific region. The latest statistics show students from India is more than 16,000. Australia has become attractive because of comparative low fees and good quality education, recognised all the over the world.

In Bangladesh there is a unit in Dhaka which takes care of admission into Australian Universities and a sizeable number have gone to Australia for studies in Australia.

Australian universities are cash-strapped and they would like to augment their resources through admission of overseas students and they pay roughly about Australia $20,000 for a year as tution fees.

There has been an influx of students from Saudi Arabia because Australia is perceived as safer than the United States, especially since September 11. So lots of young people arriving from the Middle East, keen to learn English language and share Austraian culture. Many of the international students go to Australia with government scholarships.

In any university town, the streets were full of Malaysian, Saudi Arabian, Chinese, Indian and African students, getting to know each other, carting home old furniture from the footpath and fresh supplies from the shopping centre down the road.

The atmosphere is not so merry now. Thugs have attacked several international students in this neighbourhood. Victims – Indians, Vietnamese and Saudis, among others – were robbed on the dark campus, others set upon at the shops. Police arrested some teenagers but fear lingers.

Last weekend (23-24 May) in Melbourne an Indian student was stabbed with a screwdriver – such attacks have been big news in India. Now the Federal Government has promised a roundtable to deal with issues affecting the 430,000-odd international students arriving each year.

On 29th May the Australian High Commissioner in India was summoned by the External Affairs Ministry in New Delhi to voice deep concern of the Indian government on such attacks on Indian students. The High Commissioner acknowledged that any government would naturally be disturbed by the events on their nationals in a foreign country. He did not rule out element of “racism” in such attacks. He further stated that a few arrests had been made and motivations would come out soon.

Although such stray attacks by local criminals can occur anywhere and could be isolated incodents, it is a deep concern for parents of overseas students in Australia. Many argue that it is a question of law and order and not racism. Australian government will leave no stone unturned to ascertain the motives of such attacks on overseas students.

Australia is a peaceful country and people have a basic instinct of “fair go”, meaning equality and justice to all. For example one Indian-born physcian Dr Haneef was held in custody in July 2007, under Australia’s counter terror legislation. By and large all Australians protested about the arbitrary arrest and use of the terror law. Eventually Australian lawyers fought the case free of charge and he was free. The then conservative government was embarrassed.

Australia suffers from a dilemma: it is culturally aligned with the West but is a part of the Asia Pacific region. Paul Keating, Labour Prime Minister in the early 90s, in his book :
“ Engagement: Australia Faces the Asia Pacific” (2000) asserts: “ Australia is a legitimate part of this region…this right derives in part from geography. It springs most particularly from the dense network of interests which bind Australia and our neighbours: the 60 per cent of our trade which goes to East Asia.”

In the past the Labour governments of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating (1983-96) wanted to put Australia in a different geographical UN group, with Asia-Pacific region. Currently Australia belongs to European & Others Group.

It appears that current Labour Prime Minister Rudd understands the importance of its geo-political role in the Asian region. Rudd believes that the strength of Australia lies in the engagement with Asia. If Australia maintains cooperative and trustful relations with the Asian states, it can mediate among them in resolving issues that may occur. Furthermore if Australia understands more about Asian ethos and values, it can provide advice to the Western nations including the US as to how to deal effectively with the region.

By Barrister Harun ur Rashid
Former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.

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