Chinese international students say they are afraid to travel to school in Canberra after recent incidents of harassment and assault in the capital.
Students who spoke to Fairfax Media said they regularly felt threatened and targeted because of their nationality, particularly in Canberra's south. An assault at the Woden bus interchange last week left three Chinese college students injured and one boy aged about 17 in hospital.
ACT Education Minister Yvette Berry said she was very concerned about the Woden attack, but described the assault as an "isolated incident" and said the students involved had received counselling.
Police said the attack was not racially motivated. Two people had since been arrested.
But friends of the victims said they continued to be harassed in Woden, despite assurances from the education directorate they were safe. Speaking to The Canberra Times, two international students were visibly shaken after being followed through Westfield Woden by a group of teenagers moments earlier.
"They followed us inside, they kept calling out while we were eating," one student said.
The pair said the group had been bothering them for a while, and had frequently told them to "go back to China".
"They'll ask us for $2, and we'll usually just hand it over, but then it's $20s, it keeps escalating, I don't know how to solve this problem."
Several students told Fairfax they had also been sexually harassed by Australians at bus interchanges.
"They'll constantly ask for your number, follow you when you get off the bus," one said. "They say bad things.
"This morning, they followed me, walked around close behind me and I ran away.
"It's terrifying, I don't feel comfortable here."
Local Chinese community member Dora Chen said the community was "very worried for these kids". In the wake of the Woden assaults, volunteers had started offering students free car rides to and from school via a community social media page.
"But that's just a short-term solution," Ms Chen said. "They're terrified. They carry their parents' money and they [feel] targeted."
Last week, international students took to social media to voice their alarm over the Woden incident and share stories of bullying and harassment in Canberra. A change.org petition was launched on Thursday to call for further action protecting international students. It has already attracted almost 4000 signatures.
"Students have been frequently provoked, intimidated, surrounded and even assaulted by the local young bullies around the Canberra Woden Shopping Mall," the petition states.
"Although the cases have been reported to the police, the bullies do not stop their illegal activities. The International students are still often assaulted by them."
Several Chinese international students studying at the ANU and the University of Canberra also told Fairfax they had been harassed in their time living in the capital.
One student said she had reported an incident of assault on a bus to Westfield Belconnen last year to her former college and hadn't heard anything back.
In a statement addressing the Woden incident, the Chinese embassy in Canberra said it had "expressed concerns" to the ACT government to conduct "timely investigations and fair treatment, and to take every possible measures to protect the safety and legal rights of Chinese students in Australia".
The embassy said it would be watching the outcome of the case closely.
On Thursday, the ACT Chinese Australians Association warned "Canberra is no longer a safe place for international students". The association had since met with police and the ACT government to discuss student safety.
As investigations into the Woden assault continue, police patrols around public transport had been stepped up throughout Canberra.
Victims of the attack, along with their Australian guardians, attended a workshop on Thursday about personal safety run by the directorate alongside ACT Policing.
But many students said they still felt unsafe. Confusion around what would happen to their visa status if caught up in a violent incident, even in a case of self-defence, had many students worried.
"This is about human rights, we are not equal to Australian teenagers," one student said.
"I don't have my mum and dad here, I don't want to go near Woden alone."
International education is Canberra's largest export, and more than 19,000 foreign students live in the capital, many of them from China.
While most students said they felt at home in the capital, some questioned Canberra's reputation as Australia's safest city.
"We need help. I love Canberra and I hope Canberra can be better," one student said.
ACT parliamentarian Elizabeth Lee said she was horrified to hear about the violence at Woden but Canberra was an inclusive community that valued diversity.
"I have heard reports every now and then [of racially motivated attacks], thankfully most of those reports have been verbal abuse not physical," Ms Lee said.
"In saying that, racism in whatever manner it is expressed is unacceptable."
In August, a man pleaded guilty to a string of violent robberies targeting Asian students at Canberra universities.
With Emily Baker
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