Picture this scenario: a non-government school overseas student goes missing. The first thing the parents, located overseas, see, are photos that show their child with wrists and ankles bound, accompanied by a request for money for the student's safe return. The parents, of course, immediately transfer money into an overseas bank account to ensure the safe return of their child. Little do they realise that their child is fine - kidnapped for an extortion request, but physically unharmed (although psychological harm is likely).
While this seems like an unlikely situation, for some overseas students in Melbourne this has become a reality, where, as reported by The Age, 32 students have been victims of a kidnapping and extortion scam. Of those, 22 families have sent money, with about $3 million extorted in total. The commentary provided by the Police is telling, "The victims are vulnerable. They’re not with their family. They’re naive, in fear of authorities in their own country and also, enough facts are put behind it to make it sound so believable."
For schools, this highlights the extremely vulnerable position of overseas students in Australia and renews focus on management of critical incidents under the Education for Overseas Students (ESOS) Framework.
Background to the Legislative Framework
As discussed in our previous article, schools don’t just have to comply with the 2018 National Code of Practices for Providers of Education and Training to Overseas Students 2018 (National Code) to ensure that they maintain their CRICOS registration – they have to comply with the entire ESOS Framework.
Various Standards in the National Code directly require compliance with elements of the ESOS Framework in addition to the Code itself. It is up to schools to understand what parts of the legislation they need to comply with. Additionally, various jurisdictions have state or territory-based legislation and guidelines that schools must meet to ensure their continued registration to educate overseas students.
However, common across all requirements applying to schools is the need for effective critical incident management and having documented policies and processes to mitigate critical incidents that arise.
Critical Incidents and the National Code
Under Standard 6.8 of the National Code, a school must have and implement a documented policy and process for managing "critical incidents" that could affect an overseas student's ability to undertake or complete a course, such as but not limited to, incidents that may cause physical or psychological harm.
What is interesting is the scope of critical incidents defined under the National Code. The National Code defines a "critical incident" to be a traumatic event, or the threat of such (within or outside Australia), which causes extreme stress, fear or injury. A critical incident is an emergency situation that usually involves an abnormal and sudden occurrence and can include a fire, explosion, a chemical leak, a bomb threat or terrorist attack that is dangerous or potentially dangerous to life, property or the environment.
The incident may occur at the school or through a related school-based activity or circumstance. Clearly, the pattern of extortion cases meet the definition of a critical incident. In relation to overseas students, critical incidents may also include emergency situations that occur in students' home countries, or relate to their family in or outside Australia. This may include incidents relating to the overseas student's host family, as well as child protection incidents.
Schools with overseas students should provide a 24 hour emergency communication system for staff responsible for the care of overseas students and create a Crisis Management Team who is trained to deal with the special circumstances surrounding critical incidents for overseas students. A thorough understanding of the isolation, fear and student support needed for overseas students is also essential to develop appropriate response plans.
Missing Overseas Students
Standard 5.5 of the National Code requires that if a school is unable to contact an overseas student and has concerns for the student’s welfare, they must make all reasonable efforts to locate the student, including notifying the Police and any other relevant Commonwealth, state or territory agency as soon as practicable.
It is important that schools recognise that a missing overseas student can be considered a critical incident. Particular issues with missing overseas students that may also need to be considered include:
- interaction with third party contractors like homestay and student support services, and
- managing CAAW responsibilities during school holiday periods (ensuring students are safe during these times).
What Should Schools do Now?
The incidents in Melbourne are a reminder to schools of how quickly overseas student safety and security can be threatened and a reminder of the importance of every school having:
- an Overseas Student Critical Incident Management Plan
- specific risk management protocols in regards to overseas students, and
- a parent notification procedure immediately when an incident occurs.
While it might be tempting to leave the review of critical incidents and other emergency management plans until the weeks preceding a school’s next CRICOS registration review date, recent local events demonstrate that serious unforeseen events can arise at any time and can have the potential to seriously threaten the safety of its overseas students.