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.
‘Soft targets: They don’t know where to get help’
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 adequ