The issue of race relations in New Zealand has reared its ugly head again in light of a spate of violent assaults on Asian students and the ongoing issues of violent robberies of dairies around the country.

Are these attacks racially motivated or are they crimes of opportunity?

Not long along, I had a discussion on this topic with a friend. He felt that they were racially motivated and I argued otherwise. I saw them as opportunistic. I was not convinced that the offenders were targeting Asian students and dairy owners specifically because of an underlying hatred towards East and South Asian people. He argued that even if Asian students were being targeted because they tend to be smaller, perceived to be less likely to make a fuss or report the crime and perceived to be wealthy, that still meant that they were being targeted because of their ethnicity and the associated stereotypes.

A few days later, I watched the security footage of a robbery in a South Auckland dairy. A group of masked offenders along with an unmasked one entered the dairy, shoved a fair amount of stock into their bags and proceeded to punch the woman behind the counter. It was savage, unrestrained and unnecessary. They could have just stolen the stock and left. From my vantage point, the offender had so much pent up aggression that he/she took it out on the vulnerable woman. I watched the violence in horror, wondering what would motivate a group of youngsters (they were masked but it was obvious that they were quite young) to commit such violence.

Whether the attacks on Asian students and the numerous attacks on dairy and other small business owners are racially motivated or crimes of opportunity, they need to stop. They also should not be used to justify further race-based discrimination. Following the attacks on Asian students, some advised students to run if they saw a Maori or Pacific youth. Stereotyping an entire community based on the actions of a few is inaccurate, unhelpful and dangerous.

A couple of weeks back I attended an event organised by the New Zealand Chinese Students Association to address the attacks on Asian students. The students were understandably afraid for their safety and called for more lighting and surveillance, more police presence, and an independent body that would support them. I agree with the calls for more lighting and cameras but am slightly less certain about the call for increased police presence especially in light of the police commissioner’s recent admission of unconscious bias towards Maori within the police. The last thing we need now is to go down the slippery slope of racial profiling.

Safety is a basic human need and everyone has a right to it regardless of their immigration status. It is not enough to extol the benefits of the export education sector, which contributes $2.8 billion to the New Zealand economy. We must also ensure that we do all we can to keep the students who come here safe.

There are systemic issues that produce young offenders capable of committing these heinous crimes. Many such youth offenders, such as the 12- and 14-year-old kids responsible for Mr Arun Kumar’s murder, grow up in highly dysfunctional homes where drugs, domestic violence, and alcohol abuse were normal. While nothing ever excuses violent offending, it is important to understand what role factors such as poverty, income disparity and domestic violence play in youth offending.

What is the government doing to address these drivers? A recent report by the Maxim Institute tells us that 10 to 15 per cent of New Zealand families are stuck in persistent poverty because of loss of work or insufficient hours of work. Poverty in New Zealand is less blatant than in countries such as India but it exists. Evidence shows that low educational attainment for children from low-income families means that it is incredibly difficult to break the cycle of poverty. Violence, like poverty, is intergenerational, and New Zealand continues to have one of the highest rates of domestic violence in the OECD. Rising inequality appears to be the norm in the developing world but few countries have seen it increase by as much as New Zealand has.

Sadly, the answers don’t lie in tax cuts for high-income earners, requiring the police to absorb $300 million, shutting 30 police stations and turning New Zealand into a tax haven.

We need to ensure that systemic issues are addressed and that offenders are caught, held accountable and that reoffending is prevented. New Zealand is safer than many other countries but we can do much better. Everyone, regardless of ethnicity and immigration status, has a right to feel safe. But the reality is that there are many who don’t.