• Universities are absolutely terrified of negative headlines overseas, particularly in India and China. (AAP)
International students are highly vulnerable to sexual assault, according to a recent survivor advocacy organisation report. Jane Gilmore explains why overseas students need more support and in some cases, justice.
By
Jane Gilmore

17 Mar 2017 - 12:42 PM  UPDATED 17 Mar 2017 - 4:05 PM

In 2016, there were over 300,000 international students in Australian universities. Education is Australia’s third largest export after coal and iron ore, and brings in nearly $20 billion per year. Despite being so vital to our economy, international students - many who are highly vulnerable to sexual assault- are not given the full extent of multidisciplinary support they need to recover or find redress when they have been assaulted.

This year, End Rape On Campus (EROC) Australia released a report on sexual assault in universities to the Australian Human Rights Commission, which covered wide-ranging problems with the way universities are responding to reports of sexual violence. International students were identified as being particularly vulnerable, and the financial incentive to downplay their experiences is difficult to ignore.

When she reported it, she was asked if she’d been drinking, whether she was sure she wasn’t “mistaken”, and then told nothing further would be done because there was no evidence (other than her statement) she had not given consent.

The EROC Australia report presents some horrifically detailed case studies - six of the seven primary case studies involved international students. Dozens of other incidents are cited in the report, many of them also involving international students.

One woman, who was living in campus housing woke up one night to find a man, also an international student, raping her. When she reported it, she was asked if she’d been drinking, whether she was sure she wasn’t “mistaken”, and then told nothing further would be done because there was no evidence (other than her statement) she had not given consent.

A male international student, who was sexually assaulted by a domestic student reported it to the university and was told they could take no action because there was no police report. So he went to police and took a copy of the report back to the university, where he was told they could not take any action because the matter was now with police.

In all six cases presented in the report, universities did not provide the students with any information about their policies on sexual assault or services to assist victims.

The other case studies are similarly heartbreaking, and are just a few of the many that occur every year. In all six cases presented in the report, it appears that the universities did not provide the students with any information about their policies on sexual assault or services to assist victims.

Deregulation of the universities and the cross funding of research and advertising with student fees has already raised questions about the ethics of universities using students as a revenue source. International students typically pay at least twice as much as it costs to teach them.

Nina Funnell, co-author of the EROC Australia report, tells SBS: “Universities are absolutely terrified of negative headlines overseas, particularly in India and China. No university wants to be the ‘rape university’, no parents want to send their child to the ‘rape university’”.

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Funnell also says international students can be targeted by predators who often perceive them as more vulnerable. The reasons for this are complex - cultural differences, isolation, and of course many international don’t fully understand their rights under Australian law. They may also be afraid to report sexual violence or coercion if they think they will be blamed for it. They may also be worried that their student visa will be cancelled, or even have the threat of cancellation held over them by their abusers.

Delays in the justice system might also work against international students who may only be here for one or two semesters. Rape cases are extremely complex and can take more than a year to progress through the system. Students already suffering the trauma of sexual violence can be very reluctant to come back to Australia and give evidence.

In addition to the trauma of the assault itself, there are cultural and language barriers that leave international students ill equipped to report and recover from their ordeal.

While students must have a reasonable fluency in English when they get here, for example, the nuances are much more demanding. Some students come from cultures where there may not even be a direct translation for the words 'consent' or 'sexual assault'. Rape has widely varying definitions around the world, and harassment is poorly understood in countries where it still isn’t a crime.

In addition to the trauma of the assault itself, there are cultural and language barriers that leave international students ill equipped to report and recover from their ordeal.

Many international students also simply don’t know where and how to find support services. For those that do, additional barriers include not fully understanding that doctors and counsellors are obliged to maintain confidentiality. They don’t know who they can trust. Funnell cites many examples she was given when writing the EROC Australia report where international students first told someone about their rape when they went to terminate pregnancies that resulted from rape.

It is a legal requirement in Australia that any victim of violence be given free medical care, regardless of whether they have a Medicare card. Most international students don’t know about this and either can’t afford to seek full fee medical help, or are afraid of having their insurance records go back to their families.

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The pressure to hide sexual violence from families is another factor that may impact some international students. As any parent would understand, sending a child to another country, where both parent and child struggle to understand the cultural norms, is frightening. International students, particularly women and girls, might face added pressures when they feel they have disobeyed or betrayed their families by adapting to the more Western, Australian lifestyle.

Rape is the least reported, charged, investigated and convicted crime in Australia. When even some people who have grown up here find it so difficult to get justice, the additional barriers international students must overcome can seem insurmountable.

Increased publicity over recent months has put pressure on universities to do more to support victims and take real preventative action. Their obligation to international students should be a prime focus, but added public pressure might be required to make this happen.

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