When Leu left her home in China and travelled to the Australian capital of Canberra to begin her undergraduate degree, she only had a vague idea of what awaited her.
She expected to find people who were white, tall and liked barbeques, but she says she wasn’t prepared for a campus culture that featured drinking copious amounts of alcohol.
As she embarked on her studies at the prestigious Australian National University, Leu says she had a terrifying encounter that still gives her nightmares.
One night, Leu says, a friend of her housemate followed her back to her room on campus.
“I got pushed on the bed and I got raped … He kept saying, ‘I’ll get what I want’ … I tried to reach for help. Didn’t work. I couldn’t find my phone … I couldn’t move my hands, I could only scream,” she tells 101 East.
Half a million international students like Leu are studying in Australia this year. International education is the country’s third-largest export industry, worth $18bn.
But the country’s reputation as a safe place to study is under threat after widespread disclosures of rape and sexual assault.
An Australian Human Rights Commission survey found 1.6 percent of students experienced sexual assault in a university setting in 2015 or 2016. Based on student enrollment data, that equates to more than 22,000 students.
One in five were international students.
Health experts say international students can be particularly vulnerable, with many too scared or too ashamed to speak up if they have been assaulted.
“They are considered to be soft targets, and I think they’re considered to be soft targets because they don’t know where to go to get help,” says Alison Coelho, who runs an outreach programme in Melbourne to educate international students about sexual health.
But now young women from countries including India, China and the Philippines have told their stories to Al Jazeera. None of the international students Al Jazeera spoke to had pressed criminal charges against their alleged attackers and most felt their universities did not provide adequate support.
They also spoke about how the stigma surrounding sexual harassment in their own cultures made it difficult to report the assault or even tell their families.
“It does feel like it’s your fault,” says Nishi, a 25-year-old recent graduate.
“Because your whole life, there’s this other part of your culture that’s been saying ‘don’t dress like that, don’t behave like that, don’t be western like that or else that will happen to you,’ so then when it does happen to you, you’re like ‘Oh well, it’s my fault.'”
Your whole life, there's this part of your culture that's been saying 'don't dress like that, don't behave like that, don't be western like that or else that will happen to you,' so then when it does happen to you, you're like 'Oh well, it's my fault.'
Coelho, a manager at the Centre for Culture, Ethnicity and Health, says international students rarely go to the police after they have been sexually assaulted.
Leu says other international students told her not to tell the police or her university.
“What we thought back then was Australian law only protects Australians. And if we report things like this, they probably think we are causing trouble for them and we probably would get deported, not finish school,” she says.
Leu eventually did go to the police, but decided not to press charges.
“The policewoman – I think she was trying to comfort me – she said, ‘Don’t worry, it’s definitely not your fault, but next time, just be careful.’
“That’s not helping at all. I need to be careful next time? What do you mean ‘next time’? What do you mean ‘be careful’? … I just feel extremely uncomfortable.”
Leu says she also didn’t feel she could ask her university for help.
“I wish I could have turned to someone as soon as possible … Back then was really intense because I had to study. I couldn’t tell my lecturers, I couldn’t tell my professors. I had to finish my assignments, my essays.”
Australian universities are not required to make their sexual misconduct complaint data public.
But a freedom of information request revealed 575 sexual misconduct complaints (including harassment and rape) were made from 2011 to 2016.
Universities have the power to expel students who have sexual misconduct complaints substantiated against them, and who are found to have breached a university’s code of conduct.
The data showed only six alleged perpetrators were expelled. Other punishments included eight hours community service for an indecent assault, counselling and warning notes placed on perpetrators’ files.
Anastasia Powell, a criminologist at RMIT University, says universities need a nationally consistent approach to dealing with the problem.
“When we don’t respond to sexual assault appropriately, we are differentially impacting on those students’ learning opportunities and that, to me, is the real inequity of universities failing to act on this problem,” she says.
Emma Hunt, a recent graduate from Melbourne, says she didn’t feel as though her university supported her adequately after she was raped.
“It took so long for me to find where to go and when I did find where to go, I felt completely unsupported by my university,” she says. “They didn’t even think about any actions of removing a potential rapist from their campus. They felt that his education was as important as mine.”
Now an advocate for sexual assault survivors, Emma says she knows how devastating it is to be assaulted when far from family.
An Australian who lived in China during her high school years, Emma says she was raped three weeks after arriving at her university.
“Actually taking the steps to report to police or to a university can be the hardest thing you’ve ever done in your life,” she says.
“So many universities in Australia don’t have any facilities in place on campus, online, places where they can tell students, ‘These are your options, this is how you can contact police, this is how you can feel safe on campus.'”
It took so long for me to find where to go and when I did find where to go, I felt completely unsupported by my university. They didn't even think about any actions of removing a potential rapist from their campus. They felt that his education was as important as mine.
Some universities and colleges now provide face-to-face consent training where students of both sexes learn how to navigate relationships and how to step in if they see someone at risk.
Universities Australia, the group that represents the vice-chancellors of the country’s universities, says institutions are now better placed to understand and deal with the issue since the organisation commissioned the sexual assault survey.
“I think that sexual assault is something that is very important to be dealt with across society,” says Margaret Gardner, the group’s chairperson. “We’ve now got a better understanding of the scale of the issue and we are able to address it, because one is too many.”
Universities have adopted a 10-point action plan and have agreed to implement the Human Rights Commission’s recommendations, including reviewing the way they handle misconduct complaints.
“There is a huge and strong collective will to do the things that are necessary to eliminate sexual harassment and sexual assault,” Professor Gardner says.
She insists Australian universities are a positive place to live and learn.
“That is what international students say who finish an Australian education. They say in overwhelming numbers, ‘it was a great experience’, and we work hard every single day to make sure every student will have that feeling when they leave.”
For Leu, her Australian experience will forever be marred by that one night. But she’s determined that it won’t prevent her from getting the degree she travelled miles for.
“We should be proud of ourselves,” she says. “We should just stand up … Say I don’t deserve this … Stand up, reach for help … We are survivors.”