Attacks up but not all incidents racist: Australian envoy


New Delhi: Regretting that attacks against Indian students had gone up in recent months, Australian High Commissioner to India Peter Varghese Wednesday said there had been no let-up in policing resources and maintained that most incidents in his country were “opportunistic urban crime”.

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“I don’t think it is a case that the attacks are directed only against Indians. I do not deny that there could be a racist element to the attacks but a majority of these cases are opportunistic urban crime,” Varghese said at a press conference following the murder of Nitin Garg, an Indian student, in Melbourne Sunday.

Garg, an accountancy graduate with permanent residency, is the first student to be killed in a string of attacks targeting mostly students in vocational institutes in Sydney and Melbourne since May last year.

However, Varghese admitted the attacks, which have dented Brand Australia, could see a dip in student admissions from India in this academic year.

“I am expecting a decline in 2010. But there are for a variety of reasons – the global economic recessions, the higher exchange rate, the cost of living and I accept that the perception of safety of students can deter families from sending them,” emphasised Varghese.

“I am not in the numbers game. I regret that the incidents have gone up but the numbers of Indian students applying for programmes has also gone up from 30,000 to 100,000 in the last three years.”

Australia’s lucrative higher education industry is worth over $15 billion a year and is officially listed as the country’s fourth largest export earner.

About 115,000 Indians have studied in Australia during the last year after a university publicity blitz targeting the country’s growing middle class.

The envoy also sought to downplay his country’s acting foreign minister Simon Crean alleged comments urging India not to fuel hysteria following the latest attack.

“He (Crean) had been misquoted. All he said was reactions have to be measured and that the Australian government would take all necessary measures to ensure the security of international students,”

At least a score of Indian students have either been attacked in public transport or waylaid near their houses in recent months.

Varghese pointed out that a slew of measures had been undertaken in the last couple of months. This includes the setting up of a task force appointed by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, an audit on dubious institutes, improving policing on the transport corridor and seeking ways to find suitable accommodation for students as well as the need to examine visa rules.

When specifically asked why the attacks had not stopped despite increased policing and camera surveillance in crime hot spots, Varghese said: “It is not possible for any nation to totally abolish crime.”

“We have given police wide powers to ensure safety of Indian students in Australia. These measures are designed to address the problem and we will continue to pursue these measures. To ensure full safety, we will have to abolish crime in Australia. I don’t think any government can abolish crime totally.”

India’s external affairs ministry Tuesday issued an advisory asking Indian students studying in Australia and those planning to do so to take extra precautions while moving around in the country.

“It is not my assessment the Indian government has over-reacted. Obviously it is concerned and all governments issue travel advisories for their citizens. Governments have a responsibility and it reflects their judgment,” he said.

Australian authorities have maintained they were probing Sunday’s stabbing incident and it was premature to conclude that there was any racist angle to the attack.