On his second day as a student at the University of Wollongong, Ajay Unni came face to face with an ugly edge of Australian society. Newly arrived from his native India, Unni was chatting with a friend at the local train station when a stranger came up to them and snarled, "Why don't you f___ing speak English?" Seven years later, Unni recalls the moment with some bemusement. "The funny thing was that we were actually speaking English, with a few words of Hindi here and there."
There's not too much humor, however, in the 36-year-old's dry chuckle. Race and discrimination are raw topics in Australia these days, after a series of violent assaults and robberies on Indian students over the past 18 months that have strained relations between Australia and India, triggered riots and mass protests in Sydney and Melbourne, and threatened Australia's $15 billion international education sector the country's third biggest export income earner after coal and iron.
Reports of assaults started to surface a year ago, peaking with a series of vicious attacks in May and June this year that left one student in a coma. Over 2,000 students marched in Melbourne in protest, prompting the Indian government to condemn the violence in June and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to issue a statement officially denying that the country was unsafe for Indian students. Students claimed the attacks were racially motivated, but police and government authorities maintained they were mainly opportunistic. Tensions also spread to Sydney, with protests erupting at Harris Park, in the city's west, where many of the assaults took place. Indian students are the second largest group of foreign students in Australian after those from China.
Canberra has been in damage-control mode for months to little effect. Hundreds of students took to the streets of Sydney and Melbourne again on Sept. 3 to protest not just the earlier attacks but substandard private colleges and courses that market to South Asian students, as well as poor-quality housing, exploitative work conditions and the need for local benefits like travel concession cards which, they say, will improve safety. The protests were timed to coincide with Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard's trip to India at the start of September, in which she aimed to calm the diplomatic waters, and a Senate inquiry into the welfare of international students. More demonstrations are likely when students head to the capital to air their grievances at an international student roundtable hosted by the government in Canberra on Sept. 14 and 15.
The attacks have sparked wide-ranging discussions on racism and discrimination in Australia, a nation still raw from the 2005 Cronulla race riots where thousands of Anglo-Australians engaged in violent clashes with Australian youth of Middle Eastern appearance at a well-known beach in Sydney's south. The country is also grappling with an upsurge of ultra-nationalism among some younger Australians. The issue facing South Asian students is far larger than a few isolated and possibly opportunistic attacks, says Unni, the Sydney coordinator of the Federation of Indian Students of Australia. The far bigger problem, he says, is the long-term systemic neglect of the welfare of foreign students in Australia, with too many students being treated as cash cows by indifferent government authorities and unscrupulous private-college operators.
"It's everything from the quality of the education, to lack of student services, to dingy student accommodation, to not being paid the correct hourly rate," Unni says. Pawan Luthra, chief executive of the local Indian community newspaper, Indian Link, agrees. "If even 0.1% of the $15 billion or so earned by Australia from the sector had been invested in safeguards and [better conditions], this situation would not have occurred ... Coal and iron are commodities, but these are human beings, with feelings and emotions. They need to be protected."
The government and the Australian Council for Private Education and Training, however, say only a small number of operators are culpable and that the sector has a good international reputation for providing high-quality education. Deputy Prime Minister Gillard told TIME that the rapid and substantial growth of the sector has "delivered with it opportunity [as well as] issues" and that improvements would come from new measures such as increased police patrols in problem areas, a new student hotline for complaints and requirements that all 1,300 of the Commonwealth-registered training organizations in the country reregister themselves to prove "that their principal purpose is that of education, not immigration."
Unni says framing the attacks in a purely racial context masks the fact that, on the whole, Indian students have found Australia a safe country to study and work in, though he adds many Australians have yet to adapt to the reality that the formerly white nation has become a diverse, multicultural society. Luthra believes the Indian media went overboard in emphasizing the racial motivation of the assaults, and as a result, "Australia has picked up a tag as a racist country in India." That perception has further damaged a relationship already strained by the fallout over the Mohamed Haneef incident, in which an Indian physician was wrongly accused of aiding terrorists, and the acrimonious Sydney Cricket Test last year, in which opposing players Harbhajan Singh and Andrew Symonds were embroiled in a racist name-calling row. "The tragic thing is the people [in India] most vulnerable to this message are aged 12 to 30," says Unni. "These are the future leaders and diplomats and students."