The Murder and the Wrong Man
On 3 January 2010, Nitin Garg was murdered in Melbourne's Cruickshank Park. He had come to Australia to study accounting at the Central Queensland University's Melbourne campus and was on his way to a part-time job – at fast food outlet Hungry Jack's – when two teenagers attacked him and stole his belongings, stabbing him fatally in the process. Garg, aged 21, staggered as far as the restaurant where he collapsed in front of his colleagues. He died 90 minutes later in hospital.
On 23 October 2011, Prashant Cherkupalli was awarded AU$597,000 (an amount which, at the time of writing, had apparently not been either paid or challenged) for his illegal detention in the Villawood detention centre in Sydney between November 2004 and April 2006. He had come to Australia to study engineering at Sydney University and was, for the first time, filling in at a friend's part-time job – at a patisserie in West Sydney – when immigration officials raided the shop and took him into custody. Cherkupalli, now 31, spent 509 days in custody and several more years fighting the case before the Australian courts agreed that he had been detained unlawfully.
Meanwhile, a debate rages on over whether asylum seekers to Australia should be processed overseas, in onshore detention centres or in the community. Recent reports indicate that conditions in asylum seeker detention centres are leading to widespread mental illness, self-harm and an unsettling number of suicides. Just a few weeks ago, a Tamil Sri Lankan man took his own life in Villawood – the same centre that held Cherkupalli – and was the fifth suicide in the past year. Cherkupalli, too, suffers depression as a result of his experiences.
But let's look closer at the cases of Garg and Cherkupalli, between which there are superficial similarities. Both were Indian. Both were international students in Australia. Both were working simple retail jobs when their lives changed forever. It could be argued that both were the victims of racial profiling – in Garg's case, his vulnerability as a foreign national alone in a park at night, and in Cherkupalli's, his potential as an Indian national to abscond from the stipulations of his visa and take up work in Australia. Certainly, both appear to have been very unlucky.
Looking deeper, however, the similarities extend beyond the superficial and hint at a deep and far-reaching attitudinal ill in Australian society – one which has little or nothing to do with racial profiling or bigotry.
Australia's Narrow Focus
It begins and ends with the bottom line. Australian universities, as in many other affluent countries around the world, have developed something of a reliance on more than 200,000 international students every year – at least 80,000 from India – to keep them in business. Figures from a study by Access Economics in 2009 also show that international students also represent a valuable source of income to Australia's national economy. Apart from the huge costs of their education, around $13 billion a year in 2007-2008, international students also contribute in the form of sightseeing tours and the expenditure made by visiting friends and relatives.
Compare these numbers to those of the United States and it quickly becomes apparent that Australia's education sector is performing at world-class standards. The US raked in just under $19 billion from international students in 2009-2010. Australia is remarkably close behind – with one-tenth the population of the US and roughly one-hundredth the number of universities. It's big business.
At the same time, Australia is in the midst of a housing price boom. For the average immigrant student who cannot afford on-campus accommodation, this means the rent costs in general society aren't a whole lot better – and people like Garg have to commute to university from outer suburbs where rent is cheaper. They also have to take part-time work in order to cover their expenses, often working and returning home at the most dangerous hours of the night.
However, the welfare of international students is not a great concern to most universities at present. It certainly pales in comparison to the money that they bring.
As evidenced by recent debates surrounding asylum seeker processing, this bottom-line attitude extends to Australia's major ruling parties. Labor's aim to shift processing offshore to Malaysia was blocked by the Liberal-led Coalition – not because the Coalition wanted to keep operations in Australia but because they saw Nauru, a tiny island nation east of Papua New Guinea, as a better option. Neither could have guaranteed adequate rights for refugees according to the terms of the UN Refugee Convention. Both offshore solutions were mooted as low-cost alternatives to the present onshore detention centre system. Put simply, keeping asylum seekers out of Australia is thought to be cheaper.
According to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, a not-for-profit organisation aimed at facilitating the assimilation of refugees into Australian society, community processing is both a more humane and cheaper method than the detention of asylum seekers in centres like Villawood. Chris Bowen, Australia's current Immigration Minister, has since stated that the Labor government is now looking to move more asylum seekers into the community for processing, rather than leaving them languishing behind bars. Bowen's statement came on ABC's Four Corners programme as part of an investigative report that illustrated the deteriorating mental health and increasing hopelessness of many asylum-seeking detainees.
This is fine, but no concrete moves to instigate more community processing have come to light thus far. Given the Labor government's preference for offshore processing in Malaysia, it's difficult to believe Bowen's promise will be followed through with any great intent. In the background, Tony Abbott's Coalition leads the polls and waits for the next election, after which it will seek to implement its Nauru solution. The future for asylum seekers to Australia – who continue to arrive by boat virtually every week – remains uncertain.
Connecting the Dots
So on the one hand you have Nitin Garg, drawn to Australia by promises of high-quality education in a safe, attractive environment (such as this special coverage in the Times of India). On the other, thousands of refugees wait years for freedom, which is far from guaranteed, while Australia's leaders debate which offshore processing centre offers the cheapest way of dealing with them.
And in the middle you have Prashant Cherkupalli, wrenched from one camp into the other. He came as one of Australian universities' foreign hopes, bringing with him a sizeable economic contribution that the country valued and indeed relied upon, and ended up effectively abandoned behind bars for almost two years. He is both the success of one system and the dramatic, embarrassing failure of another.
Cherkupalli represents the link between Garg and the asylum seekers. He has been subject to the Australian government's bottom-line attitude twice over: first expected to aid the state financially, then forgotten as an unwanted financial burden. While he has been released and offered over half a million dollars in compensation, his initial goal – to make a life in Australia – is, he believes, impossible as the time he spent in detention meant he became too old to apply for permanent residency after graduation.
A Different Attitude, Or None At All
This attitude of putting financial profit before immigrants' quality of life must be addressed before the Australian government can find an adequate method of handling foreigners hoping to settle on its shores. I liken it to my (albeit far tamer) experience in India, where my presence was effectively reduced to the amount of money I earned – and, for this reason, ultimately rejected. Immigrants offer different cultural attitudes, arts and identities in addition to their monetary value, contributing to cross-cultural understanding. They have the ability to build upon a nation's existing identity. The attitude from the receiving country, if positive and holistic, can demonstrate how much they themselves have grown. If negative, however, it can instead show how much of that positive national identity has been lost.
It is a noble thing to open one's borders to foreign nationals seeking a better life in some way or another, especially when they are escaping lives ruled by hardship and danger. However, the mental health problems piling up in detention centres in Australia – as well as the preferred solution of shifting those centres offshore, further away from 'the real Australia' – demonstrate that it is possible to make the life of an immigrant worse.
It shows, too, in the case of Nitin Garg, a high-paying university student who perhaps needed more assistance in assimilating into Australian culture than he was offered. It would be unfair to say that any lack of assimilation was entirely responsible for his murder, which was at bottom an act of random violence. However, Garg was just one of thousands of international students who come to Australia, more and more each year, and are accepted more for the dollar signs they represent than the social contribution they might make.
Prashant Cherkupalli, meanwhile, started out as a fiscal opportunity and ended up a drain on the nation's resources, with few social factors to add shades of grey in the government's eyes.
That nobility in accepting immigrants in the first place needs to be balanced with the economic advantages they offer. An adequate immigration policy would ensure that each immigrant's case is treated with the respect it deserves. Asylum seekers would be processed within a short timeframe of fixed maximum duration – especially those placed in detention centres – and, if accepted, be given the necessary tools to integrate into Australian society. International students, meanwhile, would be assisted in the same way during their assimilation.
At that point, half of the responsibility lies with the individual immigrants. Some people just won't be able to assimilate well or easily, either because of a vast cultural gap or a lack of desire on their own part. That's fine. The Australian government, however, should not be held to account for any less than their 50%. It must be able to say, in the case of each immigrant, that it has put forth its best effort in providing adequate services and support.
If this means Australia has to drastically reduce the number of immigrants it accepts, so be it. Charity should be offered in a rounded and caring manner, or it should not be offered at all.
Thanks to Kathleen McLeod for assistance in contributing resources and clarifications.
Amendment 22 Nov 2011: The original article indicated that refugee boat arrivals to Australia were unlawful. The word 'illegally' has been removed to reflect the terms in Article 31 of the UN Refugee Convention.
Photo credit: thehindu.com