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In 2009, a series of media reports of crimes against Indian international students and the subsequent death of Nitin Garg (a young Indian accounting graduate who was a permanent resident living in Melbourne when he died) in 2010, led to growing concern over the safety of international students in Australia. Such incidents were of concern on a number of levels—the harm (both physical and psychological) caused to students and their families; the possible increase in fear of crime and safety concerns among migrant communities; the impact on education providers; and the damage to Australia’s international standing as a safe, diverse and welcoming country.

A key part of the Australian Government’s initial response was to seek to quantify the nature and extent to which Indian students were the victims of crime by comparison with Australian populations. Although practices vary across Australian state and territory police agencies, it became apparent that there were no reliable criminal justice administrative data collected about the nationality, ethnicity, country of birth and visa status of victims of crime. It was therefore impossible to identify international student victims of crime from police data alone. The Australian Government requested that the AIC develop a method by which the extent of crime committed against Indian and a range of other international student populations could be measured and compared with the victimisation experienced by Australian populations. The primary aim of the AIC’s research was to provide an accurate estimation of the extent to which international students were recorded as victims of crime. Although it was requested that the AIC also attempt to identify some of the situational and contextual factors that might assist in explaining differential victimisation experiences, it was recognised that the resultant data would not be sufficient to clearly determine the factors or causes for crime victimisation, nor to definitively answer the question—are attacks on international students racially motivated?

International students in Australia

Australia has had a strong migration program for many years, influenced by both humanitarian and economic events. Since the establishment of a federal immigration portfolio in 1945, Australia has accepted a large number of immigrants from over 200 countries, including the United Kingdom, Europe, Asia and the Pacific. This influx has created a great deal of ethnic and cultural diversity within the Australian population (ABS 2006). Estimates indicate that almost one-quarter of the current Australian population was either born overseas or had parents born outside of Australia (ABS 2008a). Since 2007–08, over 200,000 migrants have been granted permanent visas each year (DIAC 2010).

With the growth in global student mobility, almost three million students travel to English-speaking countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, in pursuit of tertiary education (Verbik & Lasanowski 2007). In Australia, it is currently the case that there are more than 300,000 international student visas granted in each year (DIAC 2010), with the substantial growth in student numbers since 2005 attributed to the establishment of private sector VET courses (Birrell & Healy 2010). As a result, the international education sector has become the third largest export industry in Australia, generating approximately $18.3b per annum (AEI 2011). The sector also plays a critical role in fostering stronger international links and developing diverse skills in Australia and overseas.

Education and training in Australia has been attractive internationally due to its high quality and Australia’s general reputation as a safe, harmonious, multicultural society. An Australian Education International survey of international students in 2006 found that safety and security were the most important factor in choosing to study in Australia among higher education and VET students from Indonesia (94%; 95%), India (93%; 97%) and Singapore/Malaysia (91%; 94%); and the second most important factor for students from China/Hong Kong (90%; 82%) and Thailand (91%; 91%; AEI & Ipsos Australia Pty Ltd 2007). As the size of the international student population has increased and there have been reported incidents of crime, the safety and security of international students has increasingly come into focus (Butcher & McGrath 2004; Marginson et al. 2010; Nyland 2009).

Yet when compared with other Western destination countries for international students, Australia appears to be as safe or safer. For example, comparisons of police-recorded assaults (simple and major) and robberies in the United States, United Kingdom and Australia indicate that Australia had the lowest rate of major assault (3.1 per 100,000 population) and robbery (81.8 per 100,000 population) and the second lowest rate of simple assault (797 per 100,000) after the United States (786.7 per 100,000; Harrendorf, Heiskanen & Malby 2010). Findings from self-report crime victimisation surveys also reveal a lower rate for the Australian population for a one year overall experience of crime (15.5 per 100,000) in most cases for assault (3.8), robbery (0.9) and personal theft (3.6) compared with the United States (17.35; 4.3; 0.6; 4.8) and England and Wales (21.5; 5.8; 1.4; 6.3; van Dijk, van Kesteren & Smit 2008).

Crime against international students

However, while the body of Australian research on migrants as perpetrators of crime has grown steadily over the years, comparatively little is known about migrants as victims of crime more generally, and less is known about the victimisation of international students, in particular.

With regard to criminal justice administrative data, information concerning the nationality, ethnicity, country of birth and visa status of victims of crime is not routinely collected—with the exception of the identification of victims and offenders as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, where such identification, while imperfect, has been used to identify the nature and extent of offending and to identify biases in the criminal justice system. In essence, for such data to be incorporated into a case file, the investigating police members must form the view that such material is germane to the crimes alleged to have occurred. Further, nationality or ethnicity is generally identified through the police member’s perceptions, not through direct questioning. Crimes that are racially motivated—as defined by victim statements or police officer perceptions—may have such material documented, but the collection of such material is haphazard and not uniform. Although NSW Police has developed a racially motivated offences database, this also suffers from the limitations described above.

Further, the routine collection of such material would bring with it its own ethical, privacy and victim-related concerns. First, police services are expected to uphold the law regardless of the nationality, ethnicity or visa status of victims; collecting such material on a routine basis may lead to perceptions by the community that police are racially profiling, or that such issues are affecting the objectivity of the police response. Second, direct questioning of victims on these matters may intimidate victims from coming forward and therefore reduce reporting, when police typically encourage the reporting of all crime.

Beyond police records, Australian research investigating victims of crime has tended not to examine ethnic differences, although there have been some exceptions. Among these studies, the ABS General Social Surveyi, Crime Victimisation Surveyii and the Australian component of the International Crime Victims Surveyiii have all reported lower rates of experiencing crime among migrants than among people born in Australia (ABS 2010c, 2007; Johnson 2005). In the most recent Crime Victimisation Survey, 1.7 percent of the overseas-born population were victims of physical assault compared with 3.6 percent of the Australian-born population. Among those aged between 15 and 24 years who were born overseas and were studying full-time, 1.7 percent were victims of assault compared with six percent of Australian students (Graycar 2010).

Several surveys of student safety have been conducted in Australia. In 2009–10, Australian Education International commissioned research on the satisfaction of international students and found that a large majority of those surveyed indicated that they felt fairly safe or very safe when on campus. Among students in the higher education sector, 86 percent of international students and 94 percent of domestic students reported high levels of satisfaction on safety. Other studies found similarly high levels of feelings of safety among international students.

In their survey of 200 international students at nine Australian public universities, Marginson et al. (2010) found that the majority of students reported feeling safe and secure (91%). However, there was a perception, based on both direct experience and the experiences of friends, that students were sometimes targeted due to their racial appearance (11.5% of respondents). Feelings of safety in Australia differed on the basis of national or cultural origin, with Indian students more likely to respond that they did not feel safe (19%) compared with students from China (14%), Malaysia (6%) and Indonesia (4%). A small number of students from various countries reported having been the victim of assault, robbery and burglary but many more knew someone who had experienced one of these crimes.

A recent report investigating the safety of international students in public and private institutions in Melbourne (Babacan et al. 2010) reported that 82 percent (n=830) of survey respondents felt Melbourne was a safe place to live. Over three-quarters (78%) of international students compared with 86 percent of local students felt this was the case. However, half of the international student respondents (n=201) indicated that when safety was threatened, they believed there was a racial, religious or cultural element to the threat (cf 17% local students). Babacan et al. (2010: 106) found that international student safety was linked to the vulnerability of students due to ‘the relative absence of family support, limited understanding of, or access to services and relatively limited options in terms of transport, housing and employment’.

Similar findings have emerged in the United Kingdom, another English-speaking country with high numbers of international students. In 2007, the British Council conducted a survey of international student safety and found that the majority of students felt very safe at their institution (60%), 90 percent felt very safe or quite safe in the local town or city during the day, which dropped to 20 percent feeling very safe at night; the latter attributed to the drunkenness of students and non-students, the danger of robbery, assaults and verbal and racial abuse (Brown & Seller 2007). Many indicated that they were aware of these dangers and took precautions, such as avoiding walking alone in risky areas at night.

Fourteen percent of respondents reported having been the victim of a crime and the study found evidence of a higher proportion of reports from Indians, Malaysians, South Koreans, Sri Lankans, Thais, Taiwanese and Vietnamese. Higher than average crime rates were also reported among student respondents from several European countries and the United States, and was considered indicative of the fact that such students were more likely to be ‘familiar with Western lifestyles [and] might be less vigilant and more at risk than those who participate less in social and non-academic activities’iv (Brown & Seller 2007: 18).

Theft was the most common offence reported to have been experienced—usually the theft of mobile phones, bicycles, wallets, handbags and jewellery—and females were victims of crime more often than males. While victims of crime among this group came from all ages groups, a larger proportion were aged between 26 to 30 years (16%) while only 10 percent were under 18 or over 35 years, ‘the likely reason being that age and maturity result in lesser exposure to risk situations’ (Brown & Seller 2007: 20).

Crimes against Indian students in Australia

Assaults of Indian international students in Australia in 2009 and early 2010 were widely documented in both the Indian and Australian media and provided an overview of some of the incidents occurring during this period. Several reported cases involved the assault and robbery of young Indian men travelling to, or from, their place of employment or university and their residences, often late at night.

Following a series of incidents in early 2009, thousands of Indian students held a protest in Melbourne on 31 May over a range of issues, including the perceived racial motivation behind the attacks and inadequate on-site accommodation at universities. Similar protests were held in Sydney on 7 and 10 June. The issue was underpinned by the belief that Indian students were being targeted as victims of crime.

A report listing the incidents of crime against Indians in Australia since January 2009 was tabled in the Indian Parliament, Lok Sabha, on 24 February 2010. The majority of incidents recorded involved Indian students or taxi drivers as victims. Of the incidents listed, 68 involved students who had been assaulted, robbed or were the victim of theft offences in New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia. Many of the incidents listed against students were assaults, followed by robberies and theft offences. A smaller number of incidents involving verbal disputes and harassment were also recorded. Unfortunately, little is known about the offenders who committed these offences from reports (including media) currently available, nor the exact nature of the motivation behind the specific incidents.

Similar issues had previously been raised by Chinese officials with regard to the nature of crime experienced by Chinese students studying in Australia. After documenting numerous cases of assault and robbery against Chinese students in 2008 (more than 25% of the 100 students surveyed reported being a victim of some crime), the Chinese consulate in Sydney sought better protection from Australian authorities for Chinese students (Levett 2008).

The role of racial motivation

The incidents involving students have sparked debate over racism in Australia. There is some anecdotal evidence that race played a role in some of the offences against international students in 2009. Information provided to the Indian Parliament on attacks against Indian nationals (both students and others) make reference to ‘racial abuse’, ‘racial remarks’, ‘derogatory comments on Indian appearance’, ‘turban removed’ and ‘told to go back to India’ (Lok Sabha 2010). Among the approximately 50 incidents involving the assault of an Indian student, mention of racial abuse or derogatory comments based on the victim’s appearance was recorded in 12 cases.

In June 2009, then Racial Discrimination Commissioner Mr Tom Calma stated

[W]e need to recognise that racism does exist in Australia. It doesn’t mean the whole of society is racist but it does exist with individual’s actions and small group actions (‘Racism exists in Australia, says chief’ Sydney Morning Herald 14 June 2009)

Memories of the racially-charged events at Cronulla Beach in 2005 support this view. Further, Australian research has found experiences of racism in major immigrant-receiving citiesv (Dunn et al. 2009), in specific industries (Loosemore & Chau 2002) and among specific migrant and cultural groups (Browning, Jakubowicz & Gold 2003).

That there is a racial element to some of the reported incidents is undeniable; however, given what little is known ‘about who are the victims, who are the perpetrators and the contexts of each’ (Graycar 2010: 8), the nature and extent of racial motivation in crime is yet to be determined.

Racially targeted or opportunistic?

The key question arising from the media’s reporting of crimes against Indian overseas students was whether those who were assaulted or experienced other forms of crime were the victims of racially targeted crimes, or were targeted opportunistically (Graycar 2010). While race and ethnicity may be a factor when some crimes are committed, this may take different forms. A person may be targeted because of their racial appearance in the context of a ‘hate crime’, or it may be that their racial appearance is used to make an assessment of their vulnerability in the same way that age, gender and environmental factors might be used to select a victim. For example, in some of the reported incidents it is possible ‘that Indian students were seen as ‘soft’ targets who might carry on them considerable rewards’ (Spolc & Lee 2009: 4). Certainly, the carrying of valuables and electronic goods (iPods and mobile phones) by Indians was often cited as one reason for which they were victims of crime during the 2009 incidents (Baas 2009; Shekhar & Saxena 2010).

Academics participating in the Racism and the Student Experience Policy Research Workshop delivered by Universities Australia and the Australian Human Rights Commission (31 March 2010) supported this notion by acknowledging that racial motivation in crime can occur across a spectrum. Participants noted that incidents may be the direct result of racism; may be shaped by racism, although it may not be a clear motivator; and that in some incidents, racism can become an element of an existing dispute (eg the use of racist language during the commission of a crime; AHRC 2010). The situation can be further complicated by the perception of racism, which can have damaging consequences in itself. For example, hearing of reports of racially motivated attacks or other incidents among an individual’s friends and wider social network may lead an individual to form the belief that racism is common. Further, the circumstances in which international students can find themselves may give rise to fears of racism and any negative experiences may subsequently be viewed as having been motivated by racism (Senate Standing Committee on Education, Employment and Workplace Relations References Committee 2009).

There is some research indicating a perception among ethnic groups of racial targeting occurring. In 2004, non-student respondents to the ICVS were asked Do you feel you were assaulted or threatened because of your skin colour, ethnicity, race or religion? Although the number of survey respondents was low, of the overseas-born respondents who reported being a victim of crime in the 12 months preceding the survey, seven percent (n=9) answered that they felt this incident was motivated by their race, ethnicity or religion. Of these nine respondents, none were from a south Asian country; a similar proportion of Australian-born respondents reporting victimisation during this period also felt the incident was due to race, ethnicity or religion (8%; n=38).

Among the student respondents in the ICVS sample, 22 percent (n=5) of those born overseas who reported being assaulted or threatened in the 12 months preceding the survey believed it was due to their race, ethnicity or religion. By comparison, 12 percent (n=8) of Australian-born students reporting an assault or threat during this period felt the incident was racially motivated. The difference between the two groups was not found to be statistically significant and the small size of the samples precluded any real analysis.

Overall, it is still the case that very little is known about the motivation of the offenders who commit crimes against international students or migrant populations. In addition, the absence of reliable administrative data on ethnicity and racial motivation currently prevents examination of racism as a cause of crime directly and thus the question Were the crimes committed against international students racially motivated? cannot be answered directly.

An alternative approach, indeed a necessary first step before considering the issue of racial motivation, is to examine the size and nature of the problem—are international students more or less likely to be victims of crime than the general Australian population?—this is the basis for the AIC’s current study.

Risk factors

There is strong support for the acceptance of ‘opportunity’ as a cause of crime, alongside a range of personal and social variables traditionally accepted as causes of crime (Felson & Clarke 1998). While it is now widely accepted that opportunity plays a major role in theft and robbery offences (Monk, Heinonen & Eck 2010; Smith & Louis 2010), studies have identified the strong influence of opportunity on violent offences more generally; for example, ‘that bigger people are more likely to hit little people, and that larger numbers of offenders are more likely to attack smaller numbers’ (Felson & Clarke 1998: 10). That is to say, a slight person or smaller group present an offender or group of offenders with an opportunity whereby an offence may be committed with greater likelihood of success than if the offender(s) were confronted with a larger person or larger group.

Several principles underlying the link between opportunity and crime can be drawn and they include that crime opportunities are concentrated in time and space; that is, they are more likely to occur at certain times and in certain locations (eg assaults are more likely to occur in the evenings, on weekends and around entertainment venues); that they depend on everyday movements; and can be prevented by reducing opportunities (Felson & Clarke 1998). According to routine activity theory, any crime is comprised of three basic elements—a motivated offender, a suitable target and the absence of a capable guardian (any person whose presence or proximity prevents a crime from occurring). The likelihood of victimisation increases where an individual’s lifestyle or ‘routine activities’ bring them into contact with one or more motivated offenders in a situation where guardianship over personal safety or property is lowered (Cohen & Felson 1979).

Crime victimisation research has shown that crimes often share a number of common characteristics relating to location, time and victim characteristics such as gender, employment and marital status (Hirschfield, Johnson & Bowers 2001). In Australian research, age, marital status, main activity (eg work, study, home duties) and night-time activity are correlated with a greater chance of being a victim (ABS 2010c; Johnson 2005). In Australia, these factors have translated into high rates of personal crime identified among persons who are young, unmarried, have lived at their current residence for less than one year, are students or unemployed and regularly spend time outside the home at night, generally for leisure-related activities (Johnson 2005). As Johnson (2005: 11) argued

it is not difficult, for example, to see how time spent in public places by young, single people, students or the unemployed differs as compared with married people with family responsibilities or the elderly, and how this may affect risk of personal victimisation.

Generally speaking, the more time that an individual spends away from their home and among strangers, the higher their risk of both personal and property victimisation (Felson & Clarke 1998).

Considering these findings, international students are a particularly vulnerable group due to a range of factors including demographic characteristics, a lack of economic securityvi together with relatively limited options in terms of employment, housing and transport (AHRC 2010; Babacan et al. 2010). The types of employment, areas of residence and evening activities (including both shift work and use of public transport) are specific areas of risk discussed further in this section.

Type of employment

A high proportion of migrants to Australia from both English and non-English speaking countries are employed in the accommodation and food services industries (7% and 18% respectively) and in retail (8% and 11%; ABS 2010b). The employment of international students in low-skilled, low-paid roles follows this pattern with the largest proportion (29%) employed in accommodation and food services, followed by the retail trade (16%; ABS 2007). Indian students in particular ‘are able to monopolise many service occupations because they tend to have greater English proficiency than east Asian students’ (Marginson et al. 2010: 119), although there has been discussion of poorer English proficiency among students from rural India arriving after 2001 (Singh & Cabraal 2010). Service stations, convenience stores and taxi driving are among the occupations for students where risk of crime victimisation is high due to the nature of the work (Mayhew 2000; Taylor & Mayhew 2002). These types of occupations often involve working late night shifts where students are usually the only staff member at work and where there is an increased risk of crime, either at the workplace or while travelling to and from work.

Service stations and convenience stores

In a survey of over 4,000 small business across six retail sectors, cafes/restaurants, general stores/milk bars, liquor outlets, service stations, newsagents and pharmacies and liquor outlets were found to be most vulnerable, while victimisation against service stations and general stores (such as 7-Eleven 24 hour convenience stores) was relatively high (Taylor & Mayhew 2002) and possibly influenced by late trading hours, minimal staffing and a high volume of cash transactions.

Service stations are considered to be at high risk of crime, and armed robbery in particular, as a result of extended trading hours, their sale of readily exchangeable goods (eg tobacco), high volume of cash transactions and lack of adequate security measures (Smith, Louis & Preston 2009). Findings from the National Armed Robbery Monitoring Program indicate that service station armed robberies constituted 10 percent of all armed robberies in Australia, third behind incidents occurring on streets and footpaths (32%) and retail outlets (16%), and marginally ahead of convenience stores (7%; Smith, Louis & Preston 2009). Service station armed robberies were more likely to occur between 6 pm and 6 am (12 am to 3 am was the most common time), most often on Sundays and Wednesdays and were primarily targeted by opportunistic offenders attracted by the risk factors described above (Smith, Louis & Preston 2009).

Taxi driving

The taxi industry has long been recognised as one with a high risk of violence and theft (Mayhew 2000) with estimates that occupational violence in the industry is up to 15 times greater than average (Chappell & Di Martino 1998). A report on the ethnic profile of the taxi industry in Australia in 2006 found that India was the second most common country of birth of drivers (9%) after Australia (38%) at a national level (KPMG 2009). In New South Wales, China was the second most common country of birth (12%) for taxi drivers, followed by India (6%); in Victoria the proportion of Indian-born taxi drivers was almost on par with the proportion of Australian-born (22% cf 29%). This over-representation of immigrant taxi drivers is also found in Canada and the United States (Mayhew 2000).

Of the ‘tens of thousands’ of international students said to be employed in vulnerable occupations across Australia, an estimated 5,000 were working in Melbourne as taxi drivers in 2008 alone (Marginson et al. 2010). Further, the KMPG (2009) study also found that Victoria had the highest proportion of younger taxi drivers (followed by South Australia), which was believed to be driven by international students for whom the hours of work in the taxi industry fit well with their full-time study obligations. In addition, at least one of the three taxi companies operating in Melbourne often advertised at universities and colleges with a high proportion of international students (Neilson 2009).

Security of taxi drivers gained much attention, particularly in Melbourne, following the death of a driver who was pushed from the moving vehicle in 2006, and again in 2008 with the stabbing of another driver; both men were international students from India (Neilson 2009). The recent concern around crime against international students arose once again in Melbourne in mid 2009 following reporting of several attacks against south Asian taxi drivers.

Risks of violence for taxi drivers include working alone, working in the evening, through the night and in the early hours of the morning, inability to speak fluent English and intoxicated young male passengers, among others (Mayhew 2000). Other risk factors identified in three Australian studies included inner-city pick-ups (often from entertainment venues), disadvantaged socioeconomic clients and the pursuit of fare-evaders by drivers (Haines 1997; Keatsdale Pty Ltd 1995; Mayhew 1999). A study of taxi driver security in New South Wales revealed that drivers from non-English speaking backgrounds were more likely than English-speaking drivers to have been the victim of taxi-related crime, particularly fare evasion, robbery and physical assault (Taverner Research 2007). Non-English speaking drivers were also more likely to report such crimes and were more supportive of enhanced security measures in taxis. While current research is unable to determine the reasons behind the apparent higher rates of victimisation among ethnic taxi drivers, it is important to note that in Melbourne at least, the vast majority of drivers working the night shift—when the risk of crime is greater—are recent migrants (Neilson 2009).

Area of residence

Recent studies have shown that international students (both higher education and vocational) in Australia can be subject to dangerous and cramped living conditions (Marginson et al. 2010). Vocational students who primarily attend private institutions with no on-campus accommodation face the need to secure private accommodation and may rent in groups in less desirable urban areas. For higher education students, the move away from direct provision of on-campus student accommodation has led to the need to find private accommodation near to the university or college campuses. Many students, especially international students who are often experiencing life in a foreign country for the first time, prefer to live close to campus in order to minimise travel costs and time. In the survey by Marginson et al. (2010) of international students, 30.5 percent of respondents lived 10 to 20 minutes away from their university and a further 19 precent lived less than 10 minutes away.

Despite the convenience this offers, living closer to campuses, which are often located in inner urban areas with higher concentrations of crime, can potentially increase the risk of crime. Respondents in the survey by Marginson et al. reported break-ins and the theft of laptops and digital cameras from student houses close to the university campus (Marginson et al. 2009). Some respondents who chose to live on campus cited it as a safer option, with the added perceived benefit of the safer student environment.

Evening activities

As noted above, crime victimisation studies have identified that the way in which time is spent outside the home, particularly in the evening, affects the risk of victimisation for students, the unemployed and those who regularly spend time out for leisure activities (although this would also affect those who work late at night; Johnson 2005). Evening recreational activities have been associated with public disorder, vandalism and serious assaults (Hadfield 2009), particularly involving young men drinking in and around licensed premises (Donkin & Birks 2007; Homel & Tomsen 1993; Tomsen 2005). Clearly, this can impact on students who are either engaging in social activities in the evening, or who are working in or near licensed premises.

Travelling home from university or work in the evening has been identified as another area of risk. Many students in the survey by Marginson et al. (2010) reported incidents occurring in public places, particularly late at night when students were travelling home from evening classes on public transport. Respondents indicated that they avoided going out late at night on their own as a way of increasing their personal safety. Similar issues were raised by international student respondents to the Victoria University study (Babacan et al. 2010), with incidents involving threats to safety having often occurred ‘in the street’, ‘using public transport’ and at retail premises. International students were more likely than local students to nominate avoiding travelling at night and/or dark streets, and not carrying valuables in public, as methods of protecting their safety while living in Melbourne.

Reporting to police

One issue raised in relation to the victimisation of international students is that levels of reporting among this group may be low. It is widely recognised in the criminal justice sector that a significant number of crime incidents are not reported to authorities, with some estimates indicating that less than 40 percent of crimes are reported (Mukherjee 1999). Often cited reasons for failing to report include perceiving the matter as too trivial, perceiving that police could not or would not act and fear of reprisal from the offender. In addition to this, for migrant victims, language and cultural barriers are believed to create environments in which ‘crime can be committed with little fear of it being report to police’ (Taylor 2006: 2). Anecdotal evidence from police agencies also suggests that international students may be more reluctant to report than most due to the temporary nature of their visas and a lack of awareness of their rights.

Respondents in the 2004 ICVS were more likely to report offences involving substantial property loss to the police (Johnson 2005). A comparison of reporting among overseas-born and Australian-born respondents revealed similar reporting patterns across a range of personal and household crime types (see Table 1). Among the personal crimes, overseas-born respondents were more likely than their Australian-born counterparts to report to police when they were the victim of an assault or threat (44% cf 35%), robbery (57% cf 51%) and theft of personal property (43% cf 40%). The proportion of overseas- and Australian-born students who reported a range of personal and household crimes to police are included in Table 1; however, it is important to exercise caution when interpreting the results due to the small number of respondents.

This finding contrasts with those from various surveys of international students, which have indicated that the students are less likely to report incidents of crime and threats to safety due for a range of reasons, including language barriers, mistrust of police, being unaware of their rights while in a foreign country and also being fearful of consequences (including deportation where a student is working in breach of visa conditions; Graycar 2010). Cultural differences in reporting have also been raised, with research indicating that Chinese students in Australia are more likely to report crime to the Chinese Consulatevii than to report to police (Graycar 2010).

The British Council survey (Brown & Seller 2007) found low rates of reporting to police, with respondents stating that this was due to the loss being too trivial, mistrust of police and the belief that nothing would be done about any statement they gave. Similarly, only 13.5 percent of respondents who had experienced a threat to safety in the Victoria University study (Babacan et al. 2010) reported to the police. Among international students who did not report, reasons included that they did not think anything would be done about the crime, it would not be taken seriously, they did not know the perpetrators or who to report to and that the incident was not serious enough.

The present study

Australian governments at all levels have responded to the attacks against international students in a range of ways, which have included greater regulation of the courses offered within the vocational, educational and training sector, increased support for community engagement with international students and changes to immigration requirements. Such responses may be better-informed or targeted once an accurate estimate of the extent of the problem has been established, hence the current study. The AIC approached this research study in two stages—the identification and analysis of existing sources of data (both administrative and survey collections) and the creation of a new dataset that can provide the best estimate of victimisation experienced by international students, established through the matching of student immigration and police records of crime victimisation.

Stage one: Analysis of existing data

While attempting to investigate the extent of victimisation of all international students, given the government and community interest in the extent of victimisation experienced by Indian students, there was a particular focus in this study on that population. Investigation of the available information from administrative records revealed a large gap in the information necessary to identify the student victim population. Given the current lack of reliable police administrative data on the ethnicity and nationality of victims of crime, much of what is currently known about the victimisation of migrants is drawn from self-report surveys. It is worth noting that while administrative data can provide information on numbers, prevalence and a monitoring capacity, police records cannot generally provide context for the information. To gain a clear understanding of the victim experiences of international students, information from victimisation surveys is required; much of what is currently known about victimisation in Australia is drawn from such surveys.

Several surveys of relevance were identified including the ABS Crime Victimisation Survey, the ABS General Social Survey and the ICVS; however, analysis of data from the ABS sources was limited by an inability to narrow country of birth data to persons born in India due either to issues relating to survey design and/or confidentiality. The results of the ICVS analysis are presented in the next chapter.

The AIC was able to access one further source of data to provide further analysis of crimes against international students. The AIC has run the NHMP since 1990 and collected detailed information on each homicide occurring in Australia. The NHMP dataset provides a unique insight into serious violent crime, providing both the number of offences and the qualitative case details necessary to assess the nature and extent of homicide cases involving Indian students. The benefit of this crime dataset is that virtually all homicides are reported or identified; however, the dataset does have some limitations. There are relatively low numbers of homicides committed in Australia each year, limiting the number of cases available for analysis. Further, like the criminal records for other crimes, identification of any racial motivation is reliant on police officers documenting these matters in the case file, if they think them relevant. This analysis is also discussed in the next chapter.

Stage two: Analysis of crimes against international students in Australia dataset

Having determined that neither administrative nor victimisation survey data could provide the specificity that would enable a determination as to whether the rate of victimisation of international students was higher than the rate of victimisation of Australian students or a comparable Australian population, alternative approaches were investigated. Through consultation with state and territory police agencies and DIAC, it was determined that the only accurate way in which international students who were victims of crime in Australia could be identified would be through the matching of names and dates of birth from student visa information held by DIAC against police victim records. The methodology and findings from the second stage the matching of police and immigration records are detailed in this report.

The present study contributes directly to public understanding of the prevalence of crime against Indian and other international student populations studying in Australia and seeks to inform government policy and responses to the issue of student safety. The study provides baseline data against which changes in victimisation over time can be measured. It also provides some understanding of the circumstances surrounding offences against international students through analysis of temporal factors such as time of day and day of week and the location at which the crime occurred.

Determining the role of racial motivation

This study was developed to provide an accurate estimate of the extent to which overseas students are victims of crime in Australia. What the analyses undertaken for this study cannot do is enable a conclusive determination regarding why students may be targeted for criminal acts and whether these acts are racially motivated. Although beyond the scope of the present study, determining the motivation for offending would best be achieved by the development and implementation of a large-scale crime victimisation survey of international students, but also Australian migrant populations as a whole. This would enable an assessment of the nature and extent of victimisation, the extent of under-reporting and other reporting issues, and identify more of the risk or causative factors for reduced or increased likelihood of victimisation. That said, where data has allowed, the AIC has attempted to provide some insight into the impact of some risk factors for victimisation.

Table 1: (Most recent) crimes reported to the police (%)
Overseas-bornAustralian-bornOverseas-born studentsAustralian-born students
Personal crime
Assault 112 44 341 35 9 24 32 24
Robbery 27 57 99 51 7 79 17 47
Personal theft 86 43 323 40 11 46 34 21
Household crime
Burglary 185 84 585 84 20 75 73 77
Attempted burglary 63 39 206 38 6 32 19 30
Motor vehicle theft 100 94 344 95
Theft from motor vehicle 156 54 591 55 16 49 78 50
Motorcycle theft 7 95 28 86
Bicycle theft 41 53 199 57 1.5 18 25 39

Note: Rates of personal crime are based on persons, while household crimes are based on households. Estimates could not be calculated due to small sample sizes. Percentages may not sum to 100 due to rounding

Source: AIC ICVS 2004 [computer file]

End notes

i The General Social Survey (GSS) is a multi-dimensional social survey conducted by the ABS. The GSS examines the relationship between personal characteristics and topics including health, housing, education, work, income, financial stress, broad assets and liabilities, transport, social capital, voluntary work, family and community, and crime.

For the purpose of investigating the victimisation of international students born in India, the GSS records several variables of interest. Respondents are asked to report:

  • whether they were a ‘victim of physical or threatened violence in last 12 months’; and
  • whether they were a ‘victim of actual or attempted break-in in last 12 months’.

In 2006, 28.1 percent of respondents were born outside of Australia. For all persons born outside of Australia aged 18 years and over, 11 percent reported being victims of physical or threatened violence in the last 12 months.

ii The Crime Victimisation Survey (formerly known as the Crime and Safety Survey), conducted by the ABS, gathers information from individuals and households about experiences of selected crimes, perception of problems within neighbourhoods and feelings of safety. The Crime Victimisation Survey cannot be analysed to examine rates of victimisation of overseas residents in Australia as this group is excluded from the survey; however, it can be further analysed to examine the relationship between ethnicity and victimisation, with country of birth used as a proxy indicator of ethnicity.

iii The ICVS was coordinated by the AIC in 2004 as part of an international research collaboration. Implemented as a telephone-based survey, the ICVS used an internationally comparable questionnaire that provided estimates of criminal victimisation and fear of crime that could be compared internationally.

iv This was based on small sample sizes and any conclusions must be treated with caution.

v Specifically, incidents of racist talk, exclusion, unfair treatment and attack.

vi In a study of Indian University students in Melbourne in 2005, it was found that many had invested quite substantially in the migration process, taking out large loans to finance education, travel and visa expenses (Baas 2006). Family homes were often used as surety for the loans and the expectation was that students would work while studying in Australia to meet the payments.

vii Reports of problems relating to safety and quality of education and services experienced by Chinese students in New Zealand were made to the Chinese Embassy in 2003 and led to China’s Ministry of Education sending a strong warning to students to avoid studying there. A 28.4 percent decline in Chinese students studying in New Zealand was directly attributed to this action (Marginson et al. 2010).