Abandoning an Australian dream

Indian students are abandoning their studies Down Under after a spate of attacks against them.

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KOLKATA // After finishing high school in India, with a dream to study and possibly settle in his dream destination, Mukul Khanna left for Australia last year. Less than a year later, leaving his bachelor's degree programme in Sydney's Macquarie University, he returned to his Gurgaon home on Sunday. "My dream is shattered. I wanted to finish my study there, but had to drop out as my extremely anxious parents called me," Mr Khanna, 19, said. His parents were anxious for their son after reports of attacks against Indians in Australia.

"Recently my friend, a Pakistani student, who was working as a part-time salesman at a shop there [Sydney], was beaten up and robbed by some young men. The men in their early 20s hurled vulgar racial abuses while beating him," Mr Khanna told a press conference. "I don't think that most Australians are racist in nature. Some jobless young men resent the growing presence of Indian students, who are growing in number and taking up the jobs which may otherwise have gone to them. These men, who are often high on alcohol or drugs, are behind these attacks."

Mr Khanna pointed out that the attackers, some of whom were non-Australians, were targeting other South Asians as well. Some Pakistani students he knew had also dropped out and left Australia after facing similar attacks recently, he claimed. Mr Khanna's father, Dinesh, a hotelier, said he felt bad that his son had lost a year by leaving his studies in Australia. "But I am relieved that my son is away from the risk of being caught in the madness there. As soon as I saw those frightening [Indian] media reports on the racial attacks, I called up my son. When he said that his friend too had been attacked, I began seriously worrying about my son's safety and asked him to return to India immediately," Dinesh said.

Even though Australia has ordered a high-level inquiry into the recent attacks on Indian students and has hinted that it would impose tougher race crime laws to protect all foreign students, parents of tens of thousands of Indian students studying in Australia say they are worried about the safety of their children. In Melbourne - where there are 50,000 Indian students, the highest concentration in Australia, and where most attacks have taken place - police officials told local media the attacks were muggings because ordinary criminals using no sophisticated weapons see foreign students as easy targets.

Melbourne police also added that racial hatred was not involved in any of the attacks and the authorities would succeed to curb the menace soon. But many parents think the attacks are racial in nature and could rise in the future. They are advising their children, who are planning to pursue higher studies abroad, against choosing Australia as their destination. In the past year in Australia, where about 93,000 Indians study in different universities, at least 70 attacks have taken place, Australian authorities admit.

Last week, when the Australian prime minister, Kevin Rudd, called Manmohan Singh, his Indian counterpart, to congratulate him on his re-election, Mr Singh raised the issue of the attacks on Indian students. Mr Rudd, apart from apologising for the attacks, was reported to have assured Mr Singh that his government would take action against the culprits as soon as the investigations were complete. But anxious and angry parents in India are not convinced. Many parents from not-so-well-off families have sent their children to Australia after taking out big loans, hoping to give them a brighter future. Now they are worried about the safety of their children and their investment.

Dinachandra Digal, a bank clerk, whose son is studying business administration in Adelaide, said he had been aware of such racial attacks for more than two years, but having funded his son's study with a bank loan, he could not afford to ask him to drop out and return to India. "Such racial attacks have been taking place for some years. But the victims don't want to be involved in police cases, so they don't report them. I call him twice daily to check if everything is all right," Mr Digal said from his home in Orissa state.

Australia is the most popular destination for Indian students after the United States, and if the attacks on South Asians are not checked, Australia will lose a big chunk of Indian students, foreign university admission agents privately agree. "Parents of many students are scared to send their children to Australia now. Even two months ago every day we used to get at least a dozen calls inquiring about seats in Australian universities. But in the past week, since the attacks on students in Australia have been reported in the Indian media, we have not received more than three calls a day for Australian universities," said a counsellor with Global Opportunities, a leading admission agent in New Delhi. She could not be named because she was not authorised to speak to the media on this issue.

"Many callers are saying openly that Australia had been their first choice until a few weeks ago, but recent violence against the Indian students has diverted their interest to Canada and New Zealand, and in some cases to the US." aziz@thenational.ae