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CHENNAI, India — Melbourne was the nicest city during my visit to Australia a couple of years ago. The people were very friendly, smiled often — even at strangers like me — and made me feel comfortable. Since then, Melbourne and the state of Victoria seem to have turned ugly — at least for Indians, and more particularly, Indian students.

Out of the 95,000-odd Indian students in Australia, Victoria alone accommodates 45,000. And it is this region that has seen, over the past few months, horrible attacks on Indian students.

The question is, if these attacks have been motivated by race, why have Indian students been targeted? No clear answer emerges, but there are clues.

For one thing, Indians tend to be submissive on foreign soil, and could be seen by racists as soft targets. Most of the recent attacks have been on people hailing from small towns in India. Students from such towns probably find it hard to mingle with Australians. To the extent that they have marginalized themselves in Australian communities, creating a kind of ghettoization, it is possible to see how misinterpretations, misunderstandings and even hostility could result.

Also, amid the global economic gloom of many months, local Australians perhaps feel their prospects in the job market are affected by having to compete with people who are often perceived to be hardworking, thrifty and not accustomed to partying or merrymaking.

Many Indian students began looking toward Australia for an education after 9/11 made American destinations and the American dream look less attractive. Australia was virgin territory, largely unexplored educationally or economically by Indians.

Let’s face it, most Indian students had been going to the United States not just to study, but also to work and eventually get a green card or residence permit. It was, therefore, not surprising that Indians flying down to Australia nursed similar hopes. Permanent residence there could open up employment prospects.

Unfortunately, Australia’s markets and its economy have never been as big as America’s. Australia’s relatively small economy certainly was always going to struggle to provide employment opportunities to the thousands of Indians who decided to descend there.

It reached the point where Indian students were spending a whopping $30,000 to $40,000 on a one-year course in Australia, often to study fashion design, makeup or hairstyling, even though these courses were freely available in India and conducted by well-known institutions. Apparently migrating students were not motivated by education as much as by the perception that a more lucrative job market existed in Australian, one that afforded them much higher living standards than at home.

Aiding and abetting this view was the mushrooming of schools in Australia — other than regular universities — that offered sought-after vocational programs. Many of these institutes made a quick buck from expat students. Now, with the possibility that perceived racism will see less foreign students traveling to Australia, the fate of these schools could be in jeopardy.

More importantly, the Australian economy could suffer. Australia’s third-biggest export earner after coal and iron ore is education, bringing in about $16 billion a year from foreigners. Student visa applications from India fell by 46 percent between July and October 2009 from the same period a year earlier.

Indian media, meanwhile, have been shouting from the rooftops about the attacks on Indian students. Bad publicity has also come in the form of reports of the collapse of many private colleges offering cheap vocational qualifications to foreign students. These colleges had made lots of money when there was a shortage of certain skills in Australia. Becoming qualified in hairdressing and catering made it easier to acquire permanent residence, but immigration rules have since been tightened.

The Australian government has been making serious efforts to mend the situation. Senior ministers have been coming to New Delhi and Indian journalists have been offered junkets to Australia. Kevin Rudd, Australia’s prime minister, went overboard when he mentioned his fondness for Indian food in an apparent gesture of camaraderie. He must understand that it is not his professed love for curry as much as his commitment to prevent “curry bashing” that will hopefully bring a smile back to the Indian student fraternity.

Gautaman Bhaskaran is a Chennai, India-based journalist.

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