After 'gang' uproar, Sudanese-Australians set to tackle crime – and bias

Concerns about crime by African-Australian youth led national headlines for weeks early this year. Many allege the alarm was overblown, and exposed cracks in Australia's proud multiculturalism. A new task force aims to tackle root causes of teens' disengagement.

John Power
From Haileluel Gebre-selassie, left, and Kot Monoah outside a cafe in Sunshine, one of Melbourne's western suburbs with a large African community.

Kot Monoah sits with an iced drink in a cafe in Sunshine, Australia, remembering his first years in the “Lucky Country.” 

Today, Mr. Monoah is a successful lawyer, the chair of Victoria state’s South Sudanese Community Association. And the suburb of Sunshine itself is a testament to the Sudanese community’s influence, which radiates out from recently-constructed restaurants and African beauty shops.

But it hasn’t been easy. Monoah, who arrived as a refugee in 2004, knows the struggle firsthand. “I would say probably I worked two to three times [harder go get] what any other person with connections would have got,” he says, recalling countless rejected applications.

In the past two months, these western suburbs of Melbourne have found themselves under intense scrutiny after a spate of crimes, many of them attributed to African-Australian teens – particularly from war-torn South Sudan. The issue was already high on the political and media agenda in Victoria, but exploded into the national consciousness around the New Year. Senior politicians portrayed the crime as evidence of a crisis, and newspapers carried headlines such as “African gang goes on wild Melbourne crime rampage” and “Streets of fear.” 

Places like Sunshine seemed to reflect subjects that Australians felt were long overdue for a reckoning – but sharply different ones, almost speaking to two different Australias. Conservative critics lambasted a culture of political correctness for handicapping frank conversation about crime; others held up the affair as an example of stereotypes run amok, in a country whose identity as a multicultural beacon needs reconsideration.

For many residents in Victoria, however, where the Sudanese population is concentrated, the rhetoric simplified an urgent, complicated set of problems: Yes, African-Australian teen crime had become an issue. But addressing the roots of that disengagement – from education to employment – could also present an opportunity to combat biases now exposed to the national spotlight. 

And that is why, as the New Year was just beginning, a dozen African community leaders in Melbourne gathered with police for a highly anticipated press conference.

“We understand that there are significant behavioural issues that are happening with young people,” Monoah told the assembled media.

Facing the cameras, the dozen leaders – a newly-established task force – committed to tackling crime alongside police. But they are also resolved to highlight the challenges in their communities, and challenging stereotypes.

“When you are reactive, you react to the symptoms,” says member Haileluel Gebre-selassie, who immigrated from Ethiopia nearly 25 years ago. “When you are proactive, you get a chance to work through what are the aggravating factors, what are the root causes.”

'Pioneer' immigrants

Some 20,000 people born in Sudan or South Sudan live in Australia, whose politicians often describe it as the most successful multicultural nation. Polls show Aussies to be among the most pro-immigration populations on Earth, despite the government’s famously hard line against informal migration – particularly asylum seekers who come by sea.

“It’s probably only Australia and Canada where you’ll get this very high level of support for the ideal of multiculturalism and for a non-restrictive immigration policy,” says Andrew Markus, an immigration expert at Monash University. 

Largely thanks to immigration, Australia’s population has shot up from roughly 21 million to 25 million over the past decade – growth that many credit with helping to keep Australia out of recession for more than a quarter century. Today, 28 percent of the population is overseas-born, about double that of the United States.

Yet prejudice and suspicion remain realities.

“There’s no question that there's significant color prejudice,” Professor Markus says, comparing the first African immigrants to “pioneers, because Australia has not drawn immigrants from these regions in the past.” 

Crime reports in recent months have added to the negative perceptions. In December, dozens of youths were accused of trashing an Airbnb property and vandalizing homes and cars in Melbourne’s western suburbs, before pelting police with rocks. In the following weeks, other incidents attributed to local African youth included an assault on a police officer, the repeated destruction of a suburban community park, and a violent home invasion.

On Jan. 1, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull pointed to the run of crimes as an example of “growing gang violence and lawlessness” allowed to fester under Victoria’s state government, led by the rival Labor Party. Soon after, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, whose office handles immigration, claimed that the situation was so bad that Melburnians had become “scared to go out at restaurants of a night time” – a suggestion many residents mocked on social media. 

Overall crime in fact declined in Victoria last year. A government report released in January, however, revealed that 79 percent of residents felt safe in their own homes, an 8 percentage point decline from the previous year.

“As an adult, I know to look over my shoulder when I am out, I lock my car door when I am driving, I avoid places or walk on the other side of the road and just feel a general sadness that I cannot feel safe and happy in my own town,” says Ashleigh Hellyer, a lifelong resident of Werribee, where the Airbnb property was wrecked late last year. 

Double-tasked task force

African-Australian leaders say a crime problem does exist. Sudanese-born offenders accounted for about 1 percent of crimes in Victoria last year, despite making up just 0.1 of the population, according to 2011 census data, although the community is also disproportionately composed of younger people more likely to offend.

Monoah says the task force will focus on preventing crime before it happens, such as by alerting police to gatherings which are likely to erupt in violence and ensuring young offenders stick to their conditions for bail. But crucially, it will also attempt to tackle the underlying reasons teens are getting in trouble.

“You are looking at young people who are coming from generations of families that have been disenfranchised by virtue of that they are refugees and migrants,” Monoah says.

“They don’t have the network that young people here or their families have,” he adds, lamenting that an “idle mind is the devil’s workshop.”

While Australia has kept overall unemployment at around 5 to 6 percent in recent years, almost 3 in 10 South Sudanese-born adults have no job, according to the most recent census figures. In a 2016 study, 89 percent of South Sudanese job-seekers in Australia’s federal district said they’d experienced racism. 

Many are concerned for their own safety, saying crime has been overblown by alarmist media and politicians without examining the underlying causes.

“They usually target one community, from Chinese to Vietnamese, and now they’ve moved onto Sudanese,” says Reath Deng, who was born in South Sudan, of the Australian mainstream’s attitude toward new immigrants.

Mr. Deng sees Australia as a welcoming place in many ways. But racism toward young black men like him isn’t hard to find, he adds. “Sometimes they can be really scared,” he says, describing discrimination he has felt when looking for work or taking public transport.

The task force also wants to help prevent and respond to hate crimes, and allay fears about the police themselves. In 2015, Victoria Police became the first force in the country to officially define and ban racial profiling, after settling a years-long discrimination case involving a group of young African-Australians. 

“We don’t want this kind of issue covering or painting the entire young people as criminals, gangs, thugs,” says Mr. Gebre-selassie. “That is not right. So we have to correct it collectively.”

Like many others in his community, Monoah sees a double standard in much of coverage and commentary about crime.

“You’ll never see them report that white people are a problem with crime,” he sighs, producing a sheet with crime statistics that show more than 70 percent of offenders are born in Australia, with the next biggest group coming from New Zealand. “New Zealanders? Barely in the news.”

Still, Monoah stresses the importance of a positive attitude. After surviving civil war and overcoming the most extreme poverty, he says he wants young African-Australians to know that a good life is possible here, if they reach for it.

“They need to constantly apply themselves,” he says, “be persistent, remain positive, and one day their lucky break will come.”

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