China has issued a travel warning for tourists and taken the rare step of cautioning Chinese students about the “risks” of coming to Australia, citing “racist incidents against Asians”.
- Anti-discrimination groups have reported racist incidents linked to COVID-19
- Police say racism offences are often underreported or data is not collected
- Community members say we need to do more to tackle racism in Australia
Senior federal government ministers have been quick to dismiss China’s warnings, saying there is no evidence of a surge in anti-Asian racism in Australia.
Media outlets, including the ABC, have reported instances of Australians of Asian backgrounds being verbally abused, physically assaulted, spat at and targeted with racist graffiti.
Much of the evidence has been anecdotal and scattered across different reporting agencies and platforms.
Is there any evidence of increased attacks due to coronavirus?
Here’s what we know from anti-discrimination groups, police and online surveys.
The Australian Human Rights Commission reported a spike in the overall number of complaints under the Racial Discrimination Act in February.
Since then, about 30 per cent of racial discrimination complaints have been linked to COVID-19, peaking at 37 per cent in April, but dropping to about 18.5 per cent last month.
On April 15, Queensland Police reported coronavirus fears were prompting racially motivated crimes, with at least 22 offences committed against members of the Asian-Australian community. They have not yet responded to a request for updated figures.
The ACT Police, meanwhile, said: “There have been no racially related COVID-19 incidents” in the territory.
On June 1, Anti-Discrimination NSW released data pointing to a rise in anti-Asian racism.
It received 241 official complaints in the first four months of the year — 62 of those, or just over a quarter were on the basis of race. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs incorrectly claimed all 241 complaints were about racial discrimination.
Another online survey by the Asian Australian Alliance has so far reported 386 racist incidents since it launched on April 2.
It includes cases of abuse, physical intimidation and spitting, and found 90 per cent of incidents were not reported to the police.
COVID-19 sees rise in racism complaints
The Australian Human Rights Commission says about one in four people who lodged racial discrimination complaints in the past two months say they were targeted due to COVID-19.
There have been a number of individual cases where people of Asian appearance have experienced racist incidents.
They include a Hong Kong student in Hobart, who was punched in the face in March for wearing a medical face mask; also in March, a South Korean backpacker was assaulted by a Bundaberg teenager who accused her of bringing the coronavirus to Australia.
In April, two Melbourne University students were allegedly verbally and physically assaulted by a pair of women screaming “coronavirus” at them.
That same month, racist abuse was hurled at a Geelong doctor while he was waiting for takeaway food. In February, the Australian College of Emergency Medicine said its “members are reporting an increase in instances of racism with in EDs, with patients and staff of Chinese appearance being subject to racist abuse.”
Also in April, a Chinese-Australian family’s Melbourne home was vandalised with racist graffiti three times in one week.
In February, a Malaysian student was evicted from her Perth home due to her landlord’s fears about the coronavirus outbreak.
The ABC asked readers to share their stories of coronavirus-linked racism and received hundreds of submissions.
Limitations and under-reporting
Some questions have been raised about the statistical value of online surveys.
Erin Chew, founder of the Asian Australian Alliance, said its survey was designed to get an indication of how widespread the problem of racism was, and it did not pretend to be an academic study.
She said it was important not to invalidate lived experiences of racism.
“It is easy to brush it off as ‘isolated’ and say that racism is the deed of a small minority as our government ministers … are attempting to downplay, but facts don’t lie and almost 400 respondents also don’t lie that there is really a major issue of racism in Australia,” Ms Chew said.
Anti-Discrimination NSW president Dr Annabelle Bennett told the Guardian its “statistics do not tell the full story of what is happening across the state”.
Where to report racism:
Tasmania Police does not record ethnicity of victims or a crime, or motivations, in their reporting system.
“As such, this is unable to be reported on statistically,” Assistant Commissioner Jonathan Higgins said, adding there was “no excuse or place for racism”.
The Northern Territory Police did not record that information either.
The ABC is waiting on a response from NSW Police and WA Police.
In Victoria, data about prejudice-motivated offences are available on the Crime Statistics Agency website, but won’t be available for months.
Victoria Police Priority Communities Division Superintendent Craig Peel said those statistics “may not accurately reflect all incidents involving prejudice-motivated crime … due to the way information is captured across the state, the nature of self-reporting and the possibility that these crimes may be under-reported”.
He said around the world, including in Victoria, “we have recently seen members of our Asian community subjected to racial abuse”.
He stressed “Melbourne is a safe city, and we want to assure our community, that these views are reflective of a minority, and is not indicative of the majority of Victorians”.
South Australia Police said it was unable to provide statistics at short notice, but that “recent analysis has shown that overall crime is down”, however, there had been “a recent increase in break-ins on vulnerable businesses”.
What do Asian-Australian community leaders think?
Asian-Australian community members said while Australia was a multicultural society, racism remained a real and persistent problem.
“It’s still safe to come to Australia to study, but at the same time, it’s important not to brush away the emergence of COVID-19-inspired racism,” Jieh-Yung Lo, director of ANU Centre for Asian-Australian Leadership, told the ABC.
“It’s important for us not to overreact to China’s messaging and actually focus on our core strength, which is we are a very tolerant and welcoming society.
“The majority of Australians support multiculturalism and social cohesion, but at the same time, there are elements of racism that’s on the rise, and the Australian Government needs to actually tackle it head on and address it. By saying such elements don’t exist, that’s not helpful.”
Mr Lo said he’d also had horrible remarks made to him in the supermarket during the height of the pandemic, and that many Asian-Australians and international students wouldn’t necessarily think to report non-physical incidents to police or discrimination groups.
He said China was “obviously politicising this issue in this geopolitical stoush with the US and with Australia”, and said China’s stance was disappointing, as it meant that when people called out institutional racism in Australia, naysayers could then accuse them of spouting CCP propaganda.
One Chinese student told the ABC they felt Beijing’s warning had more to do with a geopolitical stoush than a genuine concern for their safety, while another said even though he had encountered racism, he still felt safe studying in Australia.
“The issue of racism exists before COVID-19. And it will continue to exist post-COVID-19,” said Vivienne Nguyen, chairperson of the Victorian Multicultural Commission.
“We have some challenges, and we need to continue to work on those challenges. But Victoria does welcome everybody from all walks of life.
“We also know many communities step up to support vulnerable members of our community, including international students.”
What has the Australian Government said?
Trade Minister Simon Birmingham initially said China’s warnings “had no basis in fact”. He later said Asian-Australians had faced incidents of racism, but rejected the idea Australia was unsafe.
“I do acknowledge that there are instances of racism and thoroughly inappropriate behaviour, which I condemn,” he told ABC’s Afternoon Briefing on Wednesday.
“In our country, racism is not tolerated. We encourage people to call it out and we condemn it. We encourage people to report it. Where it involves any type of violence, we expect it to be investigated and prosecutions to occur.
“There is no validity at all to a suggestion that Australia is an unsafe destination for visitors or students to come to.”
Also on Wednesday, fellow Minister Alan Tudge told Sky News there had been a small number of publicised attacks recently, but maintained Australia was a safe place to study.
“The vast majority of Australians would be appalled by those actions and call it out — just as I have and the Prime Minister has,” he said.
In April, Prime Minister Scott Morrison repeatedly condemned reported racist attacks on people of Asian appearance during the coronavirus pandemic, telling Australians to “stop it”.
“I’m massively disappointed because it’s just so wrong,” he said in an interview with SBS at the time.
“It was the Chinese-Australian community that actually protected Australia. They led the way and the broader community is now following.”
Australia is not the only country that has seen incidents of racism during the pandemic, with Human Rights Watch reporting a worldwide spike in anti-Asian sentiment, including in countries like the US and UK.