Monday, January 18, 2010

Indian students in Australia- is it a case of wrong place, wrong time?

What do you think of the Indian student situation? Do you face racism in Australia? Do Australian’s treat Indians differently now? These are the typical questions we get asked nowadays by both our Indian and Australian friends, following the recent press on the Indian student situation. My perspective is that of a student, who eventually settled here 20 years ago, and is gained over a kaleidoscope of recent personal incidents, I’ve briefly recounted them to give you a more human and graphic perspective, if you’d indulge me:

  • We got a first hand insight to the Indian students’ situation when we hired Manjeet as a part-time cook at home. She hailed from a village in Punjab, and was in Sydney to study catering and hotel management. She is from a middle class family and led a sheltered life in rural India, before her parents borrowed heavily to send her to Sydney in the quest for a better life for the entire family- imagine the pressure on this poor girl. She doesn’t speak any English, even her Hindi is garbled, and she lived in one of Sydney’s most dangerous suburbs, worked late nights and regularly travelled by train. Our immediate impression of Manjeet was that this village belle would've struggled to live in Delhi, leave alone Sydney.
  • In conversation with Manjeet, she told us about the financial plight of some of the Indian students, and their exploitation by education agents, employers, colleges and immigration lawyers most of whom were of Indian descent. Their plight became even more poignant when she mentioned that one of her class-mates had given up study and turned to prostitution to make ends meet. She also mentioned an Indian restaurant where the staff is routinely sexually harassed; it’s widely known that one had to ‘please the boss’ to get a job there.
  • In yet another experience, a few months ago I took a taxi in Brisbane with an Indian taxi driver. In chatting, Ashok said he’d been driving taxis in Australia for over ten years, but the last two years had been awful as a large number of Indian students had started driving taxis and started discounting their wages, consequently other drivers had to also drop their wages. Furthermore, the students were unfamiliar with either the local customs or the roads- they often lost their way and sometimes inadvertently offended passengers with their mannerisms. Consequently Ashok has not only seen his wages drop but is often subject to the backlash against Indian drivers by other taxi drivers and passengers.
  • We recently engaged another student from India to cook for us- Alka had come to Sydney with her husband to also study catering. She hails from rural Gujarat and is in her mid thirties. She and her husband gave up their bank jobs in India, cashed in all their entitlements, left their ten year old daughter behind with her mother and, both husband and wife came here with the hope of migrating. Rather desperate to have uprooted their seemingly well settled middle-class lives and thrown the last dice at an attempt to start a new lives here. Now Alka lives in constant fear that her college might shut down (as the dodgy ones often do) and leave her on the lurch. Unfortunately for her, the migration laws have also changed and catering professionals are no longer given priority.

From these snippets you’d have gathered that the mix of the Indian students who come to Australia has changed significantly, they are no longer the graduates and professionals who previously came here to advance their knowledge and professions. A majority of today’s students struggle to speak English and have enrolled into hair dressing, and catering courses as a quick boat through migration.

Often their families have borrowed heavily to send them here and are financially stretched, forcing them to live in inhumane conditions, in dangerous suburbs and work the grave-yard shift to make ends meet. They put themselves in dangerous situations, walking around unsafe neighbourhoods at unearthly hours on their way to-and-from work. Making them ‘soft targets’ in an environment where crime is rising in urban Australia, because of the tough economic conditions, rising unemployment and high alcohol/drug abuse.

I’m often asked if I face racism in Australia, to which I say racism is endemic in EVERY society. However on a relative scale, Australia is perhaps the most multicultural country in the world, with over 140 different nationalities living side-by-side. Reality is I personally face less prejudice and racism as an Indian in Australia, than as a South Indian in either Mumbai or Delhi.

But sadly, in Australia racism is more prevalent in the poorer areas where alcohol/drug abuse is higher and the feeling that the new migrants are stealing all their jobs and flourishing at their expense is rife. It’s therefore no surprise that the Indian students are copping more than their share of crime and abuse- they tend to live in the poorer suburbs. Whilst we can debate the level of racism here, it’s the poor Indian students who have staked their futures, family fortunes and occasionally their lives in the quest for a better life, who are caught in the cross-fire. To them and their parents, I say:
  1. Teenagers in India are generally highly sheltered and often lack maturity; sending them alone to a foreign country with insufficient cash is 'throwing them in the deep end' and some do drown.
  2. Why are the young in India so desparate to run away from a such a fast growing country? Isn’t it better to live well with dignity in India than to struggle and demean yourselves overseas?
  3. Surely you wouldn’t walk around the most dangerous parts of Delhi and Mumbai at 2am, why do you do it here in Australia?
  4. The Australian tertiary education colleges’ standards can vary significantly, some are outright scams. Don’t trust agents and websites, you must speak to relatives and friends here and do your own comprehensive research BEFORE paying them your fees. Above all make education and professional development the absolute priority- not migration.
And finally to the BIG ISSUES
  • Admittedly the Australian Government made major errors in its education and migration policies that created this $13bn education bubble- today its third largest export. An obvious policy bungle is in the last 20 years we’ve never ever felt that Australia was experiencing a skills shortage of either hair-dressers or caterers. So why were these professions on the preferred migration list. What we desperately need now are engineers and other qualified, skilled, technical professionals, this skills shortage is crippling the booming resources industry.
  • The biggest culprits for the Indian students’ miserable plight are the education agents in India, who enticed these students with migration promises, exaggerated job opportunities, false documents.
  • Who are these people who attack Indian students? Well... most times it’s other ethnic groups. For instance, an African group has been accused of recently burning a Gurudwara in Melbourne and; two Nepalese were arrested in connection with the murder of an Indian student in Griffith.

For the Indian students presently in Australia it may well be a case of being at the wrong place at the wrong time: as most of them are training for professions that are either irrelevant or not presently required here, the migration policies are changing, part-time jobs are scarce, the Australian dollar is soaring to new heights……., I conclude with Stacey Charter’s quote “life is all about timing”.

NB: All names have been masked to protect the individuals involved