A new advisory group to help protect Indians from violent crime is Victoria’s latest effort to safeguard its international students – and its biggest export earner. The Police-Indian Western Reference Group will help shield Indian visitors and residents, particularly students, from an escalation of night-time street crime around Melbourne’s western suburbs train line.
The first meeting late last month included representatives from Victoria Police, councils, universities, the Victorian Multicultural Commission, local Indian media and support groups and the Indian Consulate General. It looked at direct interventions as well as awareness campaigns. Initial proposals include a late-night bus service from Sunshine Train Station to students’ houses, and a peer support program of Indian residents trained in local police procedures.
The group focuses on the council area of Maribyrnong and its sprawling neighbour Brimbank, which includes the outer suburbs of Sunshine, Albion and St Albans. The area experienced a 27 per cent increase in robberies between 2006 and 2007, as the criminals’ focus moved from commercial premises to individuals and small groups in railway stations and nearby streets. An estimated 30 per cent of the victims are people of Indian appearance.
Brimbank inspector Scott Mahony told **Campus Review** this was opportunistic rather than racially motivated. He said Indians were seen as soft targets – “generally passive-natured people” in plentiful supply late at night, when robbers are on the prowl. Many of the victims were either returning from evening lectures – by public transport, as most don’t have cars – or working in late-closing garages and convenience stores.
Mahony said the initial police response – the Embona Armed Robbery Task Force set up about five years ago – had produced many arrests. “Their role is primarily reactive – they investigate offences once they’ve occurred. Now we’re trying to see what proactive things we can do to prevent them from becoming victims.”
One of the group’s tasks will be to gather more research on the victims, including how many are first-year students. “Overseas they’ve found it’s generally the new people that are at highest risk. Once you become used to an area, you start to become aware of local issues like crime and safety and to respond more as a local.”
Most international students arrive with perceptions that Australia is very safe, Mahony said, and it can take a while for them to realise they’re living in high-crime areas. But awareness campaigns need to be sustained, he added. “When new students arrive, they suffer from information overload. They’re more concerned about where they’re going to live, how they’re going to pay for accommodation and studies – crime and safety are pretty low on their radar.
“We can supply the information, but it just doesn’t seem to be getting through. We need to re-engineer the advice we provide, so it’s absorbed and acted on.”
Peer support is vital to help students overcome their mistrust of the Australian legal system, Mahony said. He said many foreign victims didn’t report crimes, partly out of culturally-ingrained suspicion of police, but also because they feared attracting attention to their own visa violations such as working excessive hours. Ignorance of the bail system could exacerbate the fears, Mahony added.
“When a victim’s told we’ve arrested the offender for your robbery, they’re very glad. When they see the person in the street the next week, they nearly die of shock. They expect them to be locked up as soon as they’re arrested – there’s no understanding of bail. We’re going to look at trying to develop local support networks that can help explain how our justice system works, maybe in their first language, and provide advice and links to victim support agencies.”
Mahony said the new group was an outcome of a December meeting with community and consular representatives, which itself followed an armed robbery at a Sunshine supermarket where the Indian employee was almost killed. Mahony said police also attended university orientations and had contributed to other awareness projects, such as a Victoria University induction DVD.
He said they would continue another high-visibility policing initiative aimed at protecting Indian students and other would-be victims. “Operation Repped” involves groups of police meeting trains late at night and accompanying disembarking passengers walking home along nearby streets.
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