(Updates with India foreign minister’s comment in paragraph 6-7)
By Michael Perry
SYDNEY, June 1 (Reuters) - Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd on Monday condemned a series of attacks on Indian students as calls mounted for a wider probe into the country’s international student sector.
Indian students say the attacks in Melbourne, which have left one student with serious injuries after being stabbed with a screwdriver, are racially motivated. Police say the incidents are both racial and part of a wider increase in opportunistic crimes.
The attacks escalated into a diplomatic issue last Friday, with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expressing concern during a phone call with Rudd.
"We deplore and condemn these attacks. These are senseless acts of violence. Those who carry out these attacks stand condemned," Rudd told parliament.
"I said to Prime Minister Singh the more than 90,000 Indian students in Australia are welcomed guests in our country."
India said it was hoping that Australian authorities would take strong action and prevent future attacks on students.
"The matter has been taken up at the highest level and we want action from the Australian side," Shashi Tharoor, India’s junior foreign minister, told Reuters in New Delhi.
Australia’s international student sector is the country’s third largest export earner, behind coal and iron ore, totalling A$13 billion ($10 billion) in 2007-08.
Police in Victoria state on Monday broke up a sit-in protest by Indian students in the capital of Melbourne.
"I think that some of the attacks are racially motivated," said Victorian state police chief Simon Overland.
"I think some of the attacks are opportunistic in that they just happen to be Indian students in the wrong place at the wrong time," Overland told reporters.
Reports of some education operators forcing foreign students to live in cramped conditions and not delivering promised services have made Australian newspaper headlines this year.
"The horrifying recent attacks on a number of Indian students have cast a stark spotlight on some of the challenges faced by international students in Australia," said Greens Senator Hanson-Young, the party’s spokesperson on education.
She said she would seek a parliamentary inquiry into the international education sector, which would examine student safety, accommodation and visa requirements.
Australia is a major destination for Indian students studying abroad, who recognise the high quality and cost competitiveness of Australian education services.
Enrolments of Indian students in Australia have increased at an average annual rate of around 41 per cent since 2002. There were over 97,035 Indian enrolments in Australia in 2008.
Australian Trade Minister Simon Crean said the national government held talks with police in mid-2008 after the Indian government first raised concerns about student safety.
"It is very disturbing what has happened," Crean said. "It is something we do seriously have to address and we will. I think we can get on top of it." ($1=A$1.25) (Additional reporting by James Grubel in Canberra and Nigam Prusty in New Delhi) (Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)