Resorts to protect their foreign assets

Crime crackdown to make streets safer for students
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The Independent Online
As seaside resorts brace themselves for the annual influx of hundreds of thousands of foreign students , police and local authorities are finalising plans to stop the visitors being victimised by locals .

"Student bashing" has become a popular pastime for a small minority of youths, who prey on youngsters often unable to speak much English and who are unlikely to stay as potential witnesses in any court cases - even if they report the crime.

But with the growing language-school business worth tens of millions of pounds to local economies, a string of initiatives has been developed among south coast towns desperate to ensure that foreign students are not deterred by fear of violence or theft.

In Southampton, where two local gangs had been picking on students, a scheme called Student Watch has helped to reduce dramatically the number of incidents.

The programme, involving bus companies, retailers, the local council, language schools and police, includes establishing "safe havens" for students who may fear attack. These havens are local shops which put up stickers showing they are prepared to help students in trouble. The police are also arranging extra patrols at night at potential flashpoints. They estimate that the number of incidents has halved since the scheme was launched last year.

Student Watch chairperson Patricia Thompson said: "It is a problem escalating throughout Europe, and Southampton is no worse than anywhere else in the South Coast - probably better. But it was something that needed to be addressed and it was."

In Brighton, which attracts about 30,000 foreign students a year, Operation Chaffinch is credited with cutting the number of incidents by around 40 per cent. A police spokeswoman said: "A lot of the students are quite young, and in groups and very apparent. Some of the local youths were targeting them because they had ready money and are less likely to report the crime."

After last year's joint launch with the local authority - building on existing schemes - detectives visit language schools and students to brief them on likely pitfalls. Students and their host families are encouraged to report all incidents so police can establish patterns, new multi-lingual witness forms have been designed to help victims identify attackers, and closed circuit television (CCTV) has been installed.

The police spokeswoman said the cameras helped in prosecutions when students went back to their own countries. "In one case we never found the victim but there was still a prosecution."

Out of 15,000 foreign students who visit Eastbourne each year, there are some 200 attacks. The local council is currently producing cartoon- style leaflets and maps to brief students on how to steer clear of trouble. A spokesman said: "It's a problem we recognise, but compared with Brighton it's nowhere near as bad."

In Plymouth, visited by around 6,000 students, police and local language schools have just produced a leaflet in different languages - English, Italian, French, Spanish and German - based on the advice of a character called "PC Bob".

One of the first towns to tackle the problem was Hastings, where Operation Host has helped reduce the number of attacks on the 30,000 to 40,000 annual student visitors to just 89 recorded cases last year, though the number of street robberies rose. The town's scheme this year will include for the first time informal patrols by student leaders wearing Student Watch sweatshirts.

Patrick Amos, country production manager for EF Education, one of the largest language schools, said he was "very happy" with the new co-operation emerging between authorities and language schools especially in towns such as Brighton, Hastings and Torquay. This included schools such as his own paying towards CCTV. "There are two things at issue, to ensure students are safe, and that publicity is not negative in the towns."