That there are groups of disaffected and anti-social youths of Sudanese (and other) origin in Melbourne is not in dispute. What is at issue is the way it is being handled by the yellow press and by right wing politicians.
With the prime minister and his Victorian sidekick Greg Hunt opportunistically weighing in to slam the Andrews State Labor government for an apparent rise in Sudanese youth crime, two deplorable features of the Australian federal system are luridly on display. The first shows how the system permits a deeply serious social problem to be exploited for utterly cynical political motives. Secondly, far from providing democratic governance, the federal system itself is revealed – yet again – to be nothing more than a crude blame and counter-blame game – a stupid system of buck-passing by politicians who are not fit to hold public office.
It’s time to carefully consider some facts about ethnic minority groups in the western suburbs of Melbourne. Officially, youth unemployment in the region is around 17 per cent, although the real unemployment rate is likely to be closer to 25 per cent. Sudanese youths are certainly over-represented in this dreadful statistic. However, compared to Australian or New Zealand born youth, Sudanese youths are by no means the worst criminals. For example, they commit about 5 per cent of aggravated burglaries; about 6 per cent of car thefts and car jackings.
However, the over-all proportion of Sudanese people (the majority coming from South Sudan) in Australia is slightly less than 1 per cent. So the stats above point to a serious problem. Some Sudanese youth are committing more crimes, more seriously, way beyond their statistical representation in the community. What are the causes of this phenomenon and how may it be solved? If only our mindless politicians would ask this question rather than reaching for a sensational headline to get themselves noticed by a viciously focused media.
First, consider the country that the South Sudanese are fleeing from. It is a hellhole of war, ethnic cleansing, torture, murder and mayhem. They come from one of the most traumatizing backgrounds anyone could possible imagine. They arrive in Australia, often as part of melded family groups, many with a single parent (mainly mothers – many of the fathers have been killed in the conflicts from which the rest of the family is fleeing). They require urgent on-going attention of well-trained professionals – psychiatrists, medical GPs, social workers, community workers. But in fact they receive virtually none of these services. Because of an anti-immigration mindset that was set in motion by the Howard government, Australia’s immigrant settler policy today is pretty much “sink or swim.”
Secondly, the South Sudanese come from vastly different cultural backgrounds. They are provided with next to no help in understanding the cultural realities on the ground in Australia. And, let’s face it, those realities vary considerably across the country and in terms of the class structuring of our society. What is considered culturally appropriate in South Sudan can be culturally unacceptable in Australia, and vice versa. People need careful and sensitive assistance to adapt to new cultures – even when those cultures are similar.
Thirdly, there is the language barrier. It is not only Sudanese immigrants who need far more effective English language education programmes. It is incredibly frustrating for both immigrants and native speakers when language inadequacies get in the way of communicating. Misunderstandings can so easily lead to anger – a problem for both groups.
Fourthly, the language barrier is also an education barrier. Without a sound English language grounding it is impossible for young immigrants to get ahead via good schooling and access to TAFE, apprenticeships and higher education. On the opposite side of the education coin is the terrible ignorance in Australia about countries and cultures outside the racially defined “Anglosphere.” Our schools, other educational institutions, and the media need to be a great deal better at educating ordinary Australians out of their xenophobia and stunning lack of awareness of other cultures.
Fifthly we have the grim fact of racism in Australia. There is a deep and abiding hostility to people of colour in this country. “White Australia” is the sub-narrative continually undermining the country’s past effectiveness as a remarkably successful multicultural society. It is almost the routine experience of Sudanese youths to be checked by police. Shopkeepers are immediately suspicious when those youths enter their shops. I have watched not a few, especially older Australians refuse to sit along side coloured people on Melbourne’s trains, trams and busses, making plain their ugly disdain for those people innocently travelling to or from work.
Little wonder, then, that South Sudanese youths are over-represented in criminal affrays causing great anguish in their own communities and feeding some terrible prejudices in the wider community. But think for just a moment that those very alienated young people may be being more sinned against than sinning. Far worse than the crimes these poor kids commit is the crude politicizing by political leaders of the very serious social problem they represent.
“Poor fellow my country.”
Allan Patience is a Melbourne academic.