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 International Student Safety: In Memory of Jae Hyeon Kim

Address by Joris de Bres, Race Relations Commissioner, to the conference of ISANA, the International Education Association Inc[1], Sky City Convention Centre, Auckland, 4 December 2008

At 1.00 pm this afternoon there will be a funeral in Nelson for Korean student Jae Hyeon Kim.

Jae Hyeon Kim was 25 years old when he came to New Zealand in February 2003 to tour the country and improve his English. His last known address was a backpackers hostel in Nelson, which he left on 8 September 2003.

He failed to return home to Korea as scheduled in December, and his family in Pusan reported him missing to the New Zealand Police in May 2004. The last evidence of his whereabouts was an eftpos transaction he made at a Westport bar and café on September 29 2003.

Police failed to find any further trace of him, but reopened their enquiry in May of this year and received two anonymous letters. This led to the arrest of three men in June and the discovery of Jae Hyeon Kim’s body in a shallow grave beside the Four Mile River south of Charleston on the West Coast in October.

One man pleaded guilty to the murder charge in October. Another has been committed for trial in the High Court.

There has been little of the media frenzy around this case that usually surrounds a murder. That is perhaps because for the past five years Jae Hyeon Kim has simply been the subject of a missing person enquiry. The circumstances are only just beginning to emerge in court five years after the event rather than, as is more normal, immediately after a murder is committed.

And yet there is something particular about this case that we need to acknowledge and remember. Police gave evidence at the depositions hearing in October that Jae Hyeon Kim had been strangled at the side of the road while his assailant uttered Nazi slogans. As far as we know, he was unknown to the person or persons who assailed him and had done them no harm.

Our hearts go out today to the family of Jae Hyeon Kim as they grieve for their son. We are thankful that he has been found, that the Police have made arrests in relation to his death, and that one of those arrested has pleaded guilty.

We must respond to this brutal murder by renewing our efforts to create a climate in which all New Zealanders and all visitors to this country can feel safe. Jae Hyeon Kim happened to be a tourist, but he could just as easily have been an international student at one of our universities.

If anything positive is to come out of his death it must be that we renew our commitment to keep New Zealand safe for all our citizens and all our visitors irrespective of their ethnicity, colour, national origin or belief.

I have recently been reviewing media reports of racially motivated crime for my annual review of race relations, and there were a number of such incidents in the past year, for example:

The good news is that the sum total of reported examples of racially motivated crime that I have found in the past year is less than a dozen, which is a miniscule percentage of all crimes committed in New Zealand. It is good news also that in the majority of cases, the Police have been able to bring the offenders to justice. What we don’t know however is how many cases of verbal abuse and other forms of racial violence occur that are not reported to the Police.

That is the challenge I bring to you as people who work with international students. You have a particular responsibility to ensure the safety of your students, to make them aware of the risks and to provide them with easily accessible processes to report instances of racial harassment. One initiative that is currently being trialled, and which involves three tertiary institutions, the Police, the local iwi, the city council and the Human Rights Commission, is the Welcome to Christchurch campaign and Report It website, which will be presented to you in the next session. I hope it will stimulate you to consider new ways in which you might tackle the issues in your own location. And I hope that you will keep the issue on your agenda.

I would be pleased to hear of other examples of good practice in this regard. The Commission’s own recent informal survey of how tertiary institutions are dealing with issues of international student safety indicated the following:

The most recent national survey of international students (2007) did not specifically ask respondents whether they had experienced any harassment or discrimination off campus, although it did ask about discrimination on campus. It is perhaps an indication of a wider problem that the survey found that three quarters of international students said that they had experienced some discrimination on campus by other students while around 50% had experienced discrimination by teachers, administrative or support staff and other international students. The survey authors recommended more work to promote cultural understanding in education institutions, but did not address the issue of student safety on or off campus.

The recently launched national Statement on Race Relations sets out ten basic human rights principles that underpin good race relations. One of these is as follows:

We all have a right to safety of our person and of our personal and communal property. Hateful acts, including racially motivated threats, verbal abuse, harassment, physical assault and damage to property are unacceptable.

This applies equally to international students, and their host institutions clearly have a responsibility to do everything they can to ensure their safety.

The economic contribution of international students to New Zealand has been estimated at over 2 billion dollars per annum. The pastoral care code for international students resulted from earlier glitches in the quality of the education, accommodation and services that international students were receiving. More attention has since begun to be paid to improving interactions between international and local students, although there is much more to do. What is also needed now is more attention to the safety of international students off campus, in conjunction with other organisations such as the police, ethnic councils and local government. At the very least, research should be done to establish the degree to which your students experience racial harassment on or off campus, information should be provided to them in plain language about the risk of such harassment, and specific processes for international students should be developed to report any incidences.

This would be an appropriate memorial to Jae Hyeon Kim whose murder on a lonely West Coast road five years ago must prompt us to do something that makes all international students, all visitors and all New Zealanders safe.

[1] ISANA is an association of professionals working in international education in Australia and New Zealand. It consists of about 550 professionals across schools, universities, polytechnics, TAFE Colleges, English language schools, ELICOS centres, PTE’s and other industry bodies. Membership includes practitioners involved in student welfare, marketing, admissions, research, teaching and service provision.