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Melbourne is renowned for its multiculturalism and has been ranked the world’s most livable city by the Economic Intelligence Unit for seven consecutive years. The 2016 Census indicated 49.1 per cent of Victorians were born overseas or have a foreign-born parent. Its population of over 4.8 million, enjoy quality healthcare, infrastructure and education and according to the Crime Statistics Agency (CSA), the state’s crime rate is down by 8.8 per cent, the biggest drop in 12 years. So what would prompt the Australian Home Affairs Minister, Peter Dutton to say Melburnians were “scared to go out to restaurants” for fear of gang-related violence, earlier this year?
For many months, this seemingly serene city has witnessed a plethora of contradictory media and police reports citing that crimes by African street gangs are out of control one day and non-existent, the next. The rise of African youth crime started around January 2015 with the development of the “Apex gang” – with many of its members of African origin, linked to carjackings, assaults and aggravated burglaries.
In December 2017, we saw tensions flare following a list of high-profile incidents: a brawl at a St Kilda McDonalds trashing of an Airbnb property in Werribee the assault of a police officer at Highpoint Shopping centre repeated destruction of a Tarneit community centre And just when the dark clouds were starting to clear, disparaging comments made by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull last week has seen apprehension mount once more.
There is no doubt, the ‘African gangs’ debate has polarised Australia. One side claims such incidents are exacerbated by constant media attention and the result of deliberate, negative stereotyping. Community Leader Knot Monoah suggests Sudanese youth feel targeted by police because of their skin colour and public assumptions associating them with the Apex gang. He critiques, “Media coverage both accurate and inaccurate (as fuelling) negative public perceptions of South Sudanese people”.
On the other hand, politicians such as Federal Minister Greg Hunt claim, “African gang crime” is “out of control”, with the Prime Minister handballing this blame to the state Labor government as “a failure of (Premier Daniel) Andrews”. All the while, the media attention and consequent discourse has conjured strong opinion within the Australian public. Popular concern is garnered by fear. But, this fear is not unwarranted. How can we be expected to navigate this turbulent sea of conflicting opinion when we aren’t given all the facts? We need to look at both sides if we are to address the issue and find a solution. So, how do the statistics stack up? Is there really a gang problem and is it exaggerated?
In October 2017, CSA statistics reported Sudanese-born people make up just 0.14 percent of Victoria’s population and around 1 percent of criminal offenders compared to the 71.5 per cent of Australian-born felons.
The figures also showed that a Victorian is five times more likely to be the victim of an aggravated burglary and over 25 times more likely to be seriously assaulted by someone born in Australia or New Zealand, than someone born in Sudan or Kenya. There is no denying that crime within the Sudanese community is quite high, but it only makes up a small percentage of total crime.
Unfortunately, the disparity in the media coverage of crimes committed by the Africans has made their frequency seem more predominant than they are. Hence, the growing problem with race stereotyping by describing perpetrators as ‘South Sudanese descent’, “predators” and “terrorising thugs” …. language loaded with negative connotations.
Executive Officer Anthony Kelly, warns racialised media commentary, social vilification and the overarching political debate, creates “all the conditions for a race riot to occur” Before this happens, we must acknowledge the damaging effects of racial profiling. Kelly suggests the response of Australians is reminiscent of attitudes in the Cronulla Riots more than 10 years ago, in which groups of Caucasian Australians surged against people from the Middle East.
Recent comments on the Victoria Police Facebook Page read, “vigilante gangs will (form) to take back our communities”, while another suggests we should “stop immigration until this mess is sorted”. It was the same with the Greek ‘gangs’ in the 1980s, Vietnamese ‘gangs’ in the 1990s and Middle Eastern ‘gangs’ in the early 2000s.
Part of the problem is Australia’s perception of Africa. We are classifying African migrants as one undifferentiated group despite their extensive internal diversity. They are people from many different ethnic groups, religions, languages and cultures. Africa comprises 54 countries, yet the main refugee groups present in Australia are Sudanese, Kenyan and Somali.
Further stigmatisation and alienation of African youths could result in a self-fulfilling prophecy; perpetuating the problem. Let’s acknowledge there is an element of falsehood, exaggeration and erroneous information presented, on both sides of this debate. So what now, you might ask? How do we find a solution?
It is a two-way street, which requires both sides to change their perception as well as a positive shift in African youth behaviour. A 10-year Victorian African Communities Action plan between the Victorian Government and African communities is a step in the right direction, however we need results quickly. Involving community leaders, high-profile Africans in sport, literature, acting and business to empower younger refugees – Poet Abe Nouk, AFL player Majak Daw and youth worker Abi Aden are all prime examples of people who have defied the current stereotype presented.
Education and sporting programs for refugee youth is another way to change the situation. In December last year the St Kilda foreshore became a hotspot for youth to congregate so the yacht club set up a program to teach them to sail. The 2016 census indicated that Victorians come from over 180 countries, speak 260 languages and dialects and follow 135 religions. It is time we embrace our cultural diversity and stop the exaggeration and racial profiling of Africans. We are one of the most fortunate countries in the world and we need to ensure Melbourne is the most livable city for all, minority groups and refugees included.
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