Australian Institute of Criminology

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The crime victimisation experience of international students in Australia has been a topic of significant discussion over the past 18 months. Media coverage of a series of crimes against Indian students in 2009 and 2010 led to growing concern over the safety of international students in Australia and subsequently prompted a call for further research.

In response to the need for an accurate estimate of the extent to which international students are victims of crime in Australia, the AIC embarked on a two-stage research process that sought to examine existing surveys and administrative databases for evidence of international student victimisation. Stage 1 involved the analysis of two data sources held by the AIC—the Australian component of the 2004 ICVS and NHMP. A summary of the ICVS analysis showed limited evidence of the over-representation of international students as victims of crime, although a higher rate of personal crime was identified among overseas-born students. The findings were congruent with broader literature on crime victimisation; however, given the extremely small sample sizes and the historical context of the study, these conclusions are made cautiously.

With regard to the NHMP, eight cases of homicide involving the death of an Indian student were identified, although no cases of racially motivated homicide were found. Assessments of the ABS Crime Victimisation Survey and the ABS General Social Survey were also carried out, but the inability to narrow country of birth data in the surveys to persons born in India due to issues relating to survey design and/or confidentiality meant that further analysis was not possible.

In the absence of any definitive findings from ICVS or the NHMP, a second stage of research was developed to provide the first estimate (based on police recorded episodes of victimisation) of the extent to which international students have experienced crime in Australia. This study is the first of its kind in Australia to use administrative records (student visa data) from an Australian Government agency (DIAC), matched with records from police databases, for the purposes of national criminal justice research.

The data used in this study were not without limitations and it is important to consider these when interpreting the results. First, the reliance on police-recorded victimisation data meant that results in this study relate only to those incidents of victimisation that were reported to, and recorded by, the police. Under-reporting is a well-accepted limitation of recorded crime victimisation studies and applies equally in this study of international students. There is also some anecdotal evidence to suggest that under-reporting may indeed be greater for international students (and for some nationalities in particular; Graycar 2010). Second, while every effort was made to ensure that data extraction was consistent and comparable across jurisdictions and that the name and date of birth searching parameters produced the best available data, it is likely that some variations existed between police databases. The extent to which these variations affected the reliability of the results is not able to be quantified, but it is important to recognise their potential influence when interpreting the results. Many of these limitations exist to some degree in all research studies using complex search procedures and crime victimisation data from police administrative databases.

Despite these limitations however, this is the only study to date that has been able to go beyond anecdotal reports and some relatively small-scale student surveys in estimating the extent to which international students are victims of crime. Overall, international students from the five source countries that provided the highest number of students from 2005–09 (India, the People’s Republic of China, the Republic of Korea, Malaysia and the United States) experienced incidents of physical assault at significantly lower rates than in the Australian general population in 2009. This was true for most nationalities in most jurisdictions and was generally consistent from 2005 to 2009. In some cases, comparisons between students from different countries showed some situations in which Indian students had higher rates of assault than students from China, Korea, Malaysia and the United States.

The nature of those assaults (day of week, time of day and location) experienced by international students was generally consistent between students of different nationalities. The notable exception was that a greater proportion of male Indian students were assaulted in commercial (retail) locations and in, or near, public transport facilities. Additional analysis possible for the robbery offences indicated that it is likely that the employment Indian students engaged in was at least partly responsible for the location of the assaults.

In terms of robbery, the findings were somewhat different. In 2009, the rate of robbery victimisation among male Indian students in some jurisdictions was higher than the state average for the relevant Australian population—a finding that was consistent for most years since 2005. Chinese male students were also at higher risk of victimisation compared with state averages in some jurisdictions, as were Indian female students in some years in some jurisdictions.

As with assault, the temporal profile of robbery was generally consistent between the countries and followed patterns consistent with the general Australian population. It was found that robberies recorded against Indian students were significantly more likely to have occurred in commercial (retail) locations and more detailed analysis found that of these cases, one in three occurred at service/ petrol stations or 24 hour convenience stores, indicating that employment may have been a risk factor.

There was little difference in the rates of other theft both among the international student groups and between the five student groups; the exception was for Indian male students who had higher rates of other theft than students from China, Korea and the United States. Analysis with the general Australian population was restricted by not having access to data that would enable the creation of weighted comparisons. Thus, any comparisons must be treated with additional caution. While international students did not appear to be significantly more likely to be the victim of other theft, Indian students appeared to be over-represented compared with some other student groups in some jurisdictions.

Age and gender are two of the key factors determining risk of victimisation. Research has consistently shown that young males are much more likely to be both victims and perpetrators of crime (Richards 2009). It would then follow that a higher rate of crime would be expected among the Indian students in the sample as a distribution on both age and gender revealed that there were proportionally more young males in the Indian students sample than for any other student group. Almost half (48%) of the Indian student sample were males aged between 15 and 24 years, a much higher proportion than for students from Malaysia (41%), the People’s Republic of China (39%), the United States (33%) and the Republic of Korea (23%). However, when the effects of both age and gender were controlled for, Indian students continued to be more likely to be the victims of crime compared with other student groups, suggesting the interplay of other factors.

Crime victimisation research has shown that crimes often share a number of common characteristics relating to location, time and victim characteristics such as gender (as discussed above), employment and marital status. 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). Further analysis of ICVS data found that once the effect of personal and contextual factors were taken into account, a respondent’s student status was no longer statistically significant. This suggests that a person’s risk of victimisation isn’t tied to their identification as a student, but rather other personal and contextual influences that are more prevalent among student populations. For example, regularly undertaking evening activities, as opposed to staying at home most evenings and seeing or being witness to drug-related activities in the local area (which may reflect either a geographical relationship, that is, some areas are more prone to violence and other criminal activities, or alternatively, it may reflect the types of activities in which the respondent engages) are linked to higher rates of victimisation.

There are a number of possible factors contributing to the apparent over-representation of Indian students as victims of robbery compared with the state averages and as victims of assault when compared with other student groups. Although the findings of this study indicate that there is little difference among students and the state/territory populations on assault, the higher rates for robbery and other theft may be explained, in part, by the nature of the work undertaken by Indian students.

It was found that there was a significantly higher proportion of assaults and robberies of Indian males at commercial (retail) locations compared with all other student groups. This may be a factor of the reported dominance of Indian students in gaining employment in the service industry, often in service stations, convenience stores and as taxi drivers, over other international students due to stronger English language skills. It may also help to account for the over-representation. These industries are identified as being higher risk occupations that involve operators using transport and working at night; being exposed to night time economy (with an increased likelihood of coming into contact with drunk clients and individuals); and often involving work as sole operators and having an increased risk of crime, either at the workplace or while travelling to and from work.

Other factors such as the areas in which students reside and their greater reliance on public transport have also been identified in the literature as leading to increased vulnerability and are likely to underpin some of the findings for rates of crime against international students. While some of the data presented appears to point towards such an effect, this is not something that can be determined from the current dataset. Similarly, the issue of whether the offences against international students, Indian students in particular, were racially motivated cannot be addressed based on analysis of the current dataset. Race and ethnicity may be a factor in some crimes, however, the nature of racial motivation can span a broad spectrum—including whether individuals are targeted for a ‘hate crime’ or whether their racial appearance was among other factors assessed to determine their vulnerability—and this is yet to be determined for those incidents occurring in 2009 and early in 2010.

However, tentative conclusions regarding the factors underlying the results of this study can be drawn based on the criminological literature around opportunity and the crime triangle. Together with a range of personal and social variables, opportunity is also considered among the causes of crime and plays a major role across a range of offences, most notably in theft and robbery offences. The notion of Indian students being considered a ‘soft target’ by offenders finds some support in the opportunity literature; that is, a slight person, someone perceived as less likely to fight back or to report crime, or a 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 of offenders.

As discussed earlier, other findings in the literature which highlight the link between opportunity and crime and provide some support for the findings of this study include the importance of space and time, and routine activities. The principle that crime opportunities are not equally distributed and for certain types of offences are more likely to occur at particular times and in particular locations (eg assaults are more likely to occur in the evenings, on weekends and around entertainment venues) holds much relevance. As shown in this study, a higher proportion of robberies occurred at commercial premises, on the streets and on, or near, public transport. Media reports of specific incidents in Victoria and a report tabled in the Indian Parliament listing offences against Indian students between 1 January 2009 and 19 February 2010 also support this with many incidents taking place on the street, in parks or at train stations.

Another link between opportunity and crime emerges in the principle that crime opportunity depends on the everyday movements of people. As described earlier, any crime is said to be comprised of three basic elements—a motivated offender, a suitable target and the absence of a capable guardian. 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.

The high proportion of robbery occurring on commercial premises for Indian students was double or nearly double that for all other students in this study and over half of robberies against Indian students on commercial premises occurred at services stations. When taken together with the knowledge that Indian students tend to dominate service industry jobs due to a greater proficiency in English and that these jobs (usually in service stations, convenience stores or as taxi drivers) often involve working as sole operators and come with an increased risk of crime, the findings lend support to the notion that it is the ‘routine activities’ of these students, in this case the type of employment and travel to and from their place of work, home and university, which puts them at higher risk than other international students. Anecdotal evidence regarding the incidents of assault and robbery of Indian students in Victoria in 2009 also lends some support to this notion with several cases involving students who were travelling to or from work late at night, alone and often in areas lacking a capable guardian (ie another person whose presence or proximity prevents a crime from occurring).

Given the routine activities explanation of crime

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 (Johnson 2005: 11).

Risk of personal and property victimisation increases as time spent away from the home increases. Viewed through this lens, international students are a particularly vulnerable group due to a range of factors including demographic characteristics, a lack of economic security, limited options in terms of employment, housing and transport, places and nature of employment and mode of transport.

Following this premise, preventing victimisation among international students will involve minimising opportunities for victimisation through removal of ‘a suitable target’, ensuring some level of guardianship and reducing motivation among offenders. In this case, greater safety awareness education for students, cultural education regarding what to expect in Australia, and other measures (including enhanced links between police and student groups to encourage reporting), would go some way to reducing the risk of victimisation.

Finally, the AIC has emphasised throughout this report that the data available for the current study does not allow for conclusions to be drawn regarding the role of racial motivation. Further, the research was reliant on reported experiences of victimisation. Targeted research is required to more accurately obtain information on the extent to which victimisation is unreported by migrant and international student populations and to investigate (perceived) offender motivation. This is best achieved through the development and implementation of a large-scale crime victimisation survey of international students and other Australian migrant populations, enabling a more fine-grained assessment of the personal and contextual factors that affect the nature and extent of victimisation. Such research would prove valuable insights into the experience of crime and inform community-based and other law enforcement strategies to improve the safety (both real and perceived) of international students, and indeed all migrant and ethnic groups, in Australia.