Indian student migrants in Australia: issues of community sustainability.

Author:Singh, Supriya

The established Indian Australian community mainly consists of people with professional occupations who came to Australia after 1970, and their Australian-born children. They come from the educated urban middle class in India, speak English fluently and are doing well in Australia. In contrast, the wave of Indian students who arrived mainly after 2001 are more likely to come from rural backgrounds. Even though they may have bachelor degrees from India, they often have poor English. Many have enrolled in vocational courses in cookery and hairdressing in the hope, often realised, of gaining permanent residence. As is now well known a number of them have been subjected to robbery and violence, often racist, and some have died. This article explores this recent history and also draws on interview data. It uses this to outline some of the differences between the established community and the growing number of students, and to describe the efforts made by the two groups to bridge these differences.


A long queue of mainly male Indian students and student migrants swells the congregation of the Blackburn Sikh Temple in Melbourne to 5,000 every Sunday. Every week there are new brides wearing the ritual red and while bangles. The 120,569 Indian international students comprise nearly one-third of the Indian community in Australia. Now 160 kilos of wheat flour is kneaded every Sunday to make chappatis for the langar, the ritual meal in the temple, compared to 70 kilos five years ago. Master Darshan Singh, Chairperson of the organisation that runs the Blackburn Sikh Temple, says that every week 10,000 people--and not all of them are Sikh--have a hot meal in the temple. (1) This coming together in the Sikh temple overlays the growing diversity within the Australian Sikh population in particular, and the Indian community in general.

In this paper we outline the recent racist attacks on Indian international students and student migrants. At the same time, the professional Indians who migrated with their families from 1970s onwards see Australia as a multicultural society. We argue that the social background and migration experiences of recent Indian international students and student migrants differ from those of the earlier migrants and their families. The migrants with professional occupations and their families came from metropolitan cities, had a good knowledge of English, and worked in their areas of expertise. The most recent Indian students and student migrants come most often from small towns and villages, have poor English, and are financially stressed because of the financial costs of migration. They have also been poorly served by the government's policy linking education, skilled labour and migration. These factors are contributing to Indian students becoming vulnerable to racism, particularly on the streets of Melbourne.

Thus, the Indian students who have come to Australia in recent years, many of them hoping to gain permanent visas when they complete their studies, are different from the professionals who migrated up to 40 years ago. There is a similar disconnect between the second generation Indian Australians, the children of these earlier migrants, and the new cohort of Indian international students. The second generation Indian Australians, who grew up in Australia, live with their parents or in their own homes. If they are working, they are in professional jobs. They report incidents of name-calling, but do not interpret these incidents as experiences of racism.

We conclude by examining the role that Indian religious organisations can play towards building greater connectedness between the Indian student migrants and the more established Indian Australian community. We detail the latter's efforts at addressing the problems of the Indian students and mentoring them to better fit into the wider Australian community. These community efforts can be one of the building blocks contributing to a more harmonious society.

In this paper, we draw on our open-ended interviews with 14 first generation established migrants and 16 second generation migrants of Indian origin on their migrant and family experiences and 11 interviews with Indian religious and community leaders. We supplement these interviews with census, immigration and educational data, media reports and research studies on the Indian community in Australia. This analysis also draws on Singh and Cabraal's participation in the Melbourne Sikh and Hindu Indian


In early 2010, the Indian media ran daily news of Indian international students being robbed, assaulted and killed in Australia, particularly in Melbourne. We know that 32 Indian students died in Australia between 2003 and 2009. (2) There are no precise figures about robberies and assaults. The Indian High Commission says 130 Indians have been attacked. Police say that 1,447 Indians were victims of reported crime in Victoria, in the year ending July 2008. (3)

As the attacks continue, there is an edginess in the wider Indian community, as there are reports of abuse and increased questions about safety. (4)

The Indian media have branded the attacks as racist. The Indian government visibly showed its displeasure, with the Indian High Commissioner accusing Victoria of being in a stale of denial, and of being ineffective in its policing. (5) The initial stance of the Victorian and federal governments was to deny that these attacks were racist and to reiterate that Australia was a safe multicultural country. Their immediate focus was that these attacks would negatively affect the international education industry, believed to be worth $17.2 billion. In May 2009, Deputy Police Commissioner Kieran Walshe described these attacks as 'opportunistic' and said the Indian students were 'soft targets' because they were passive, travelled alone late at night and carried expensive gadgets. (6) In the same vein, police had earlier advised Indians not to speak loudly in their own languages in public places. (7)

As the attacks continued, in June 2009 Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police, Simon Overland, admitted that some of the attacks on Indian students were 'clearly racist in motivation'. (8) He has had to keep reiterating the admission, for the initial government reactions to news of new attacks continued to be that the attacks were not racist.

It is now openly recognised by the federal government, the Victorian government, eminent Australians and parts of the Australian media that some of the attacks on Indian students in the last two years have been racist. The debate in Australia is moving towards the need to recognise there are racist pockets and to demonstrate that these attacks will not be tolerated. General Peter Cosgrove, ex-Chief of the Australian Defence Force and Australian of the Year in 2001, noted in his Australia Day speech that Australians have shown much generosity and compassion in the face of troubles in our region. But he also accepted that there were 'pockets of racism' and that attacks on Indian students were becoming a 'litany of criminality'. (9) Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said on 9 February 2010 that:

Recent contemptible attacks on Indian students and others of Indian origin in Australia have cast a long shadow, not only over our education links, but across our broader relationship and bilateral agenda. These attacks are inexcusable. Australia needs to take this seriously and we are taking it very seriously. (10) Some Australian media commentators have addressed the continued denial of racism by the Victorian state government. (11) The debate has more directly entered the political arena in Victoria with the Leader of the Opposition attacking the state government for its ineffectiveness in stemming the violence.

The Victorian police have not released the crime statistics, saying that the data can be easily misinterpreted. (12) Hence there is no definitive analysis of the circumstances of the crimes, or the ethnicity of the victims or of the assailants. The police have said that most of the perpetrators are teenagers, and that alcohol and drug related violence is behind many of the attacks. There is speculation that the perpetrators come from existing migrant groups in the outer suburbs, people who are reacting to the large numbers of Indian students displacing them in housing and jobs. (13)


In educational and police circles, it has been known for at least two years that trouble was brewing. The link between vocational training for occupations such as hairdressing and cookery, and the opportunity of gaining permanent residency, has led to the exponential increase in the numbers of Indian students in vocational...

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