Urgent need to address the South Asian drowning crisis in Australia

Individuals born in India accounted for the highest proportion of migrants who drowned in Australia between 2009–2019. 

By Rajas Satija

In November of 2023, comedian and podcaster Andrew Schultz captivated his sold-out Sydney audience with a bold statement. ‘I came to Australia for one reason,’ he declared, igniting a wave of anticipation. The room, charged with a palpable buzz, awaited his punchline. Then, with impeccable timing, Schultz delivered: ‘Because I wanted to see a full-grown Indian man walk into the ocean wearing jeans and socks.’

While Schultz’s humor and cultural commentary struck a chord of amusement, it also left me, a second-generation Indian immigrant raised in Australia, with a lingering sense of melancholy. The laughter that filled the room at the image of an Indian uncle venturing into the surf at Bondi Beach, clad in a singlet and jeans, was undeniably funny. Yet, it re-emphasised a concerning stereotype: the portrayal of Indians as not only poor swimmers but also as having a dangerously inadequate understanding of water safety.

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This jest became all too real three weeks ago, on a tragic afternoon in Victoria, marking the state’s most devastating drowning incident in two decades. Four individuals from Melbourne’s South-East were swept out to sea by a rip current. The victims were 23-year-old Melbourne nurse Jagjeet Singh, 20-year-old university students Kriti Bedi and Suhani Anand, and 43-year-old Reema Sondhi — all of Indian descent. Reema Sondhi had arrived in Australia just two weeks before the tragedy. The heart-wrenching ordeal of the victims’ families, grappling with the irreversible loss of their loved ones, moved me.

The incident is a stark reminder of the critical issue at hand: the South Asian drowning crisis. It compels us to confront a disturbing trend and address the urgent need for change. Through this piece I aim to shed light on this pressing matter. The mission is not just to promote water safety awareness but to foster a culture of swimming proficiency and lifesaving knowledge within the South Asian community in Australia. It is a call to action for all of us to rally together and prevent such tragedies from recurring.

The Numbers

South Asians are overrepresented in drowning deaths across this country. In 2022, a groundbreaking study by the University of New South Wales examined the risk factors behind drowning among migrants from South Asia, revealing alarming statistics.

The findings were stark: almost half (47%) of beach drowning deaths from 2004 to 2021 involved people born overseas. Furthermore, individuals born in India accounted for the highest proportion of migrants who drowned in Australia between 2009–2019. Even more concerning was that out of 249 respondents from various South Asian countries, nearly half claimed they could not swim but still intended to enter the water when visiting beaches. Additionally, more than half of the total respondents admitted to entering the water at unpatrolled beaches, often as a family or group.

My Story

My father arrived in this country as an international student 30 years ago, immediately captivated by the pristine beaches. However, his enthusiasm turned to near-tragedy when he was swept up in a rip current while swimming. Fortunately, a young surf lifesaver rescued him, prompting him to vow not only to learn to swim properly but also to ensure his children were equipped with the necessary skills to save themselves and others.

I still vividly recall my first session at Trigg Island Surf Life Saving Club nippers. Pulling on the pink rashie and surf cap was exhilarating yet strange. Despite years of swimming lessons and competitive swimming, navigating the waves proved to be a daunting challenge. The swift instructions yelled by our age group coordinator, Hayden, added to the intensity. Before I could fully grasp the situation, I found myself gasping for air, feeling overwhelmed by the crashing waves and salt water.

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Naturally, after that first session, my self-confidence was shattered. The humiliation of being pulled out of the water in front of my peers led to a tantrum on the way home. However, my father’s persistence and the supportive community at Trigg Island Surf Life Saving Club kept me going. Over the next three years, I not only benefited from the Nippers program but also experienced the warmth of the community, particularly during the 2014 Christmas party. My parents, unable to contribute to the Nippers program with their swimming abilities, harnessed their culinary skills and hosted an Indian food night during the 2014 Chirstmas party, showcasing how Surf Life Saving clubs epitomize the Australian spirit — selfless volunteers committed to fostering communities and bolstering safety.

The Way Forward: Submersion

Professor Rob Brander from UNSW has highlighted the importance of having community “champions” to revolutionize water safety education. Just as one wouldn’t learn to drive a car solely through a learner’s manual, unless and until our community takes the plunge and engages in water activities, such incidents will continue to occur. Embracing Mahatma Gandhi’s principle, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world,” underscores a vital truth: true change cannot occur through mere slogans like “swim between the flags” shouted from the comfort of the beach. Instead, change can only come when we ourselves don the rashie and cap, enter the water, and refine our practical knowledge of water safety.

That’s why we at Dharma Down Under aim to reduce the number of people drowning from our community. The plan? We are in discussions with various Surf Life Saving club across Victoria to conduct water safety workshops in our community spaces — temples, Gurudwaras, Churches, mosques and community centres.

This piece was first published in the Medium and has been republished here with the kind permission of the author.

Contributing Author: Rajas Satija is currently studying a Bachelor of Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Monash University and works part-time as a swim teacher. He is also the founder of Dharma Down Under, a youth not-for-profit that connects young second-generation Australian Hindus through community service, educational events and social events.

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