There have been suggestions in some quarters of the world media recently that Australia and Australians are racist. Well, are they? Sure, a few are - just like a few people in any other country in the world are. But to paint the entire country and all Australians with the same broad brush is oversimplifying the matter without really understanding the details.

The recent spate of attacks suffered by some Indian students in Melbourne generated a lot of angst in India. There were demonstrations and effigies of Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd were burned. In India, an emotion-driven country, having the benefit of only third person opinions, the reactions are perhaps justifiable and understandable.

The attacks on some Indian students in Melbourne (and to a lesser extent, Sydney) are real. But did the attacks stem from ethnicity or race alone? In my view, the answer is no.

Were Indian students who didn't live in far-flung, rougher neighbourhoods attacked? No. Were all attackers white Australians? No. Is there a law and order problem in Melbourne that goes beyond racial issues? Yes.

While the Indian media went into a feeding frenzy, whipping up racist overtones, a close evaluation of facts won't justify their stance.

Leaving the race issue aside for a moment, let's review the Australian education milieu. Presently, there are about 95,000 Indian students in Australia (the second-largest contingent from any single country). Of that, 45,000 are in Melbourne. Therefore, by virtue of that statistic alone, Indian students present a greater body of exposure to crime in Melbourne than other students.

Anecdotally, many of the several thousand foreign students who flock to Australia see their studies here as a good route to obtaining Australian permanent residency. Which is fair enough, from their perspective. But in chasing that outcome, they accept a seat at any and every Australian institution that offers them a place - well beyond the main universities.

Admittedly, these institutes have a vested interest in these students from across the world. They are keen to admit full-fee paying foreign students to exploit maximum revenues to fund academic activities (as against Australian students whose fees are subsidised).

A lot of these non-university institutions do not offer on-campus accommodation. Therefore, students on a budget tend to rent cheap accommodation in suburbs far removed from their institution. They also choose to earn spare cash to support themselves and they end up working late shifts in fast food joints and other eateries.

Consequently, they walk the streets late, and travel on near empty trains late night to reach their distant homes in rough neighbourhoods. These late sojourns make them vulnerable to attacks from criminals. We need to also bear in mind that Melbourne is a big international city. And akin to other mega cities like New York or London, there is crime.

Students need to be aware of this and tailor their stay and behaviour accordingly. I wouldn't risk travelling late night in Harlem or the seedy sides of London or Paris when carrying items that are thief magnets. Common sense must prevail.

From the Indian students' point of view, because the attacks have centred on them, they feel they have been singled out for racist assault. They feel they pay full fees, pay taxes on their earnings and are not getting enough protection from the law.

It's like they have paid first class fares, but have been seated next to the toilet in the last row of economy class. The fact that students of other nationalities haven't been attacked to the same extent fuels this line of thought. However, their critics point out that students of other nationalities lead a different lifestyle and adopt greater safety measures compared to Indians.

Unfortunately, crime rates in all major global cities are predicted to increase as the financial crisis gets worse. Muggings, shop and home break-ins will only increase across the world as unemployment and financial hardship bites. The faster we acknowledge this fact and modify our movements and behaviour, the safer we all will be.

Quite unrelated to ethnicity, the Victorian Police (Melbourne is in the state of Victoria) need to get their act together and ensure the safety of its residents - both students and general public alike. While the police do a great job in general, there is some suggestion from a few Australian media commentators that the Victorian police culture and its focus has been on reducing crime statistics rather than crime itself.

In other words, even if a crime happens, unless it is reported, action is not taken. Consequently, official police crime statistics in Melbourne have shown a decline, but it is felt that real numbers are on the up.

To sum up, the attacks suffered by Indian students are worthy of condemnation and indeed, students need real reassurance about their safety. However, to cast Australia and all Australians as racist is, well, stretching the truth by a country mile.

Eapen Verghese is a Sydney-based business consultant who writes on Australian affairs.

Your comments

Well said! Even Indian community leaders in Australia also agree with what you say. I can't believe this is getting coverage in the Indian media. It is like someone in the Indian media has some vendetta against Australia. Melbourne is a great city, what we need is for Indian students to work with the police and the general community to address the increase in violent crime.
C. J.
Posted: June 12, 2009, 14:38

Sir, What about the racist words they used before and during the time of attack? We dont have any hostility towards Austrialians.
S. B.
Posted: June 12, 2009, 12:49