The inaccessibility of sexual assault support services for international students

Current services are inadequate in providing support for international students

Artwork by Risako Katsumata Artwork by Risako Katsumata

CW: sexual harassment/assault

The Redfern Legal Centre (RLC) has been providing free legal advice and casework to the inner-city community for over 40 years.

RLC’s International Students Legal Service helps with issues pertinent to international students—housing problems, visas, and employment. But recently, their international student solicitor Sean Stimson has noticed a distressing pattern.

“We started to see [international students] coming through to us and they weren’t characterising their real concern,” he explains. Instead, they cited “an employment issue they’d like to discuss…as a bit of a cover story”.

“We started to see that there, at the core of their problems, were other issues.”

According to Stimson, international students were disproportionately hesitant to seek advice and information on what support services were available to survivors of sexual harassment and assault.

In 2017, USyd counted 19,000 international students in its student body—more than 30%. In the same year, the joint Australian Human Rights Council (AHRC) and Universities Australia survey on sexual assault and harassment revealed that one in four students had been harassed on campus, and 22,000 students assaulted at university over the past two years.

The Red Zone report, released earlier this year by End Rape on Campus (EROC), identified international students as a particularly vulnerable group. Its investigation found that a “disproportionate amount of assaults against international students occur within their first month in Australia”, citing potential culture shock as a reason. Uncertain boundaries due to a newfound sense of freedom and new age limits on drinking, may also leave international students at risk, it reported.

The AHRC survey, however, found that domestic students (27 per cent) were more likely to be assaulted than international students (22 per cent) in a university setting. But as many activists, and the Red Zone report noted, systematic flaws in its methodology would have caused underreporting of instances of assault and harassment.

“The survey was not available in other languages and was not written in a way that would be considered culturally appropriate to many international students, resulting in poor response rates,” EROC observed.

Stimson believes that these were the same barriers preventing international students from finding help at the RLC. In particular, the language barrier made it “incredibly difficult for some of our clients to understand what their rights were” as information was “delivered in reasonably complex legal language”. He also notes the existence of cultural confusion in knowledge of local laws—actions may be “slightly different or more acceptable as a behaviour” in the student’s country of origin.

Councillor-elect Abbey Shi, who ran for the SRC elections on a platform of helping international students, agrees. “[International students] are afraid of getting legal assistance because of language barriers,” she says.

“[Students] might not even know they are being sexually harassed,” because they aren’t aware of their rights within an Australian legal framework.

Further factors such as unfamiliarity with Australian policing and judicial systems, access to support services, and informing families at home create additional difficulties.

USyd’s current support services include the helpline 1800-SYD-HLP, student liaison officers, and an online reporting portal. Students can use these mechanisms to make complaints and disclosures.

Given the large proportion of international students at USyd, it seems obvious that these support services should take the specific language and cultural barriers international students face into account. Beyond criticisms already been levelled against the online portal, however, there seems to be very little in these support services catered especially to international students who may find it difficult to disclose details of sexual assault in English.

USyd’s website helpfully informs survivors that reporting incidents of harassment and assault will not affect their visa status. This aside, the online portal only seems to go so far as to ask whether the reportee is indeed an international student. According to USyd, a “support team” can then “take into account [the student’s] status”. When asked about specific support services for international student survivors, USyd notes that its student liaison officers have experience supporting all students.

Wom*ns Officer Jessica Syed notes that a large flaw in the University’s current services is “its lack of advertisement and the fact that it is mostly monolingual”.

“When dealing with matters as sensitive as sexual assault, survivors should be entitled to relay their experiences in the language they are most comfortable speaking,” she says, criticising the lack of translational services as an “extreme oversight”.

Shi agrees, noting that the “[trauma] of the event might stop international students from following the process of reporting online”. She suggests that the distribution of translated flyers and the running of workshops on campus during OWeek could help vulnerable students become more aware of their rights and how to get help.

Stimson reiterates that “there’s an obligation to be able to provide information very early on to those that are wanting to study in Australia”.

In response to gaps in accessibility for international student survivors to get help, the RLC partnered with City of Sydney and Study NSW to develop the multi-lingual factsheet Your Body, Your Choice. Available in 11 different languages, the resource is designed to be a “one-stop” guide explaining firstly, the rights and legal terminology surrounding assault and consent, secondly, the counselling services available, and thirdly, medical and legal support, and reporting mechanisms.

The sheet goes on to specify that “anyone, including international students and visitors can receive help and support from these services,” and that “being a victim of a crime will not affect your visa or employment status”.

“We tried to create a resource that was in very plain language, and that was culturally sensitive”, Stimson says.

Though activists have praised the new resource, they also raised concerns that the factsheet prioritises police services as a primary contact for support of survivors. “This often disallows survivors the ability to control the narrative around their experiences,” says Syed.

She acknowledges that “the RLC factsheet is a step forward in making support services more accessible for a broader range of people.” The factsheet may very well be one of the translated flyers, that as Shi suggests, could be distributed during OWeek next year.

Our university is not doing enough. Its current services are not adequate in recognising the vulnerabilities of international students and the barriers they encounter in reporting. As Stimson says, “we have an obligation, as do our education providers across Australia.” Until that obligation is met with action and implementation, USyd is leaving 30% of its students at risk.


Your Body, Your Choice is available at: https://rlc.org.au/publication/your-body-your-choice-sexual-assault-factsheet