ALLAN PATIENCE. Melbourne’s South Sudanese youth problem and the confection of a crime gang crisis.

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.



Dr Allan Patience is a Principal Fellow in Political Science in the University of Melbourne where he lectures on Australian foreign policy.

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8 Responses to ALLAN PATIENCE. Melbourne’s South Sudanese youth problem and the confection of a crime gang crisis.

  1. Florence Howarth says:

    I have always believed that refugees make the best immigrants. They have nowhere to return to, Most want to get on with building a new life. Most make great success at doing so. Lack of English does not appear to have prevented them from doing so. At 76 my view hasn’t changed. I have spent much of my life living in suburbs where there are high numbers of refugees. I raised my children with them. Many of my workmates came from many different countries.

  2. Andrew McRae says:

    Punishment is a necessity; restitution even more so. The latter might entail the involvement of offenders in socially useful activities. A harsher penal system will never reduce individuals’ predisposition for ciminal behaviour; rather, more harsh punishments will only harden the incarcerated, and do nothing for the rate of recidivism. Simply put, punishment should be fairly and equally applied and be accompanied by educative and reformative activities.

    I do agree with Rosemary’s point about work: “What works is Work; authorized, disciplined, meaningful work . We know this. We have known it since Dickens’s day.”
    Amen, I say, apart from suggesting the insertion of “fairly paid”.

    • Rosemary O'Grady says:

      To: Andrew McRae:
      ‘Fairly Paid’. In this day and age? Now THAT would be Revolutionary! I Wish!
      ‘Socially useful activities’… I was almost in tears to hear/see reports of California penal-inmates fighting forest fires – and the empowerment they got from the respect this earnt them. Gardening works too- I know for a fact- first-hand!

  3. Sally Cowling says:

    Dear Allan,
    Thank you for such a deeply informed and thoughtful contribution. A welcome contrast to the shallow 7.30 coverage last night. I say this as an unabashed 7.30 fan. Our collective failure to understand the acute trauma these young people have experienced and the impact this has on behaviour and capacity to build trusting relationships is central to ways forward to effectively support young – and indeed all – refugees. Perhaps we could all take a moment to imagine what it would be like to arrive in a world that, while safe, has a different language and culture and limited support to navigate such complexities. Access to education and employment are rights which are able to be realised with good support systems and a renewed focus on creating jobs. All of this requires genuine leadership at the levels of government and community. The ‘blame game’ mentality of both the PM and perhaps, more astonishingly, the Minister responsible for mental health was system failure in action.

  4. Rosemary O'Grady says:

    What the public sees is a group of thugs causing injury, insult and damage. Not a ‘gang’ it seems? It looks like a gang. It self-identifies as 2 gangs. It is a loose federation of warring tribes causing disorder and fear and, in the public eye: biting the hands that have fed it and shaken it. If these youths get a soft slap on the hand they will despise the ‘authority’ which does that, and go on to greater efforts.
    The public also sees abuse of power (the revenue/ the public discourse) by Pavlovian politicians up for a summer ‘grab’. The public sees high unemployment amongst native-born, non-immigrant populations who are told to get degrees/doctorates – and then find = no jobs. Pauperization is a real option for many emerging from schools today.
    The public sees casualization of labour/work and access to income. It (the public) sees the squeaky wheel getting the oil – the professionalization of refugee-advocates urging care and consideration for offenders who are quite-likely traumatized psychotics whom the public sees as a further drain on the revenue – which the public sees is already mis-managed.
    When I worked in the bush (outback/remote Australia) the senior law-people of distant communities wanted a stricter law & order regime for their aberrant, offending youth – ‘though not in the style and system available through existing regimes which, obviously, don’t work.
    What works is Work; authorized, disciplined, meaningful work . We know this. We have known it since Dickens’s day. Keep saying the word ‘culture’ and you will breed a race of Ribbentrops (Goerings?). You breed contempt and violence. Work out a system of fair and just punishment that applies equally to all; not some special measures that makes policy-fodder out of vulnerable kids and makes the rest of the population fgear, despise and hate them. We began as a prison-nation and we still can’t get penology right. What does that say about us?

    • Joan Seymour says:

      ‘Work out a system of fair and just punishment that applies equally to all’ – certainly. (In fact, I think we do try to do this already). But is punishment the only response we have? Don’t we also need to examine causes, and add suitable prevention and treatment to our repertoire of treatments? Mr Dutton may jump straight to amputation, but that’s hardly civilized or humane. (No surprises there). I agree that suitable work is essential for everyone, and its lack lies at the root of many evils in Australia. The problems specific to the South Sudanese community are caused by additional factors, and we need to deal with those, too.

  5. Jaquix Deacon says:

    Well Turnbull got what he wanted, a “conversation” designed to embarrass Daniel Andrews. Dutton too has now weighed in, going further. Talking of deporting them and then criticising Andrews govt for appointing libertarians to the judiciary! Dangerous in Dutton! Twitter lit up with #MelbourneBitesBack-people sharing photos of their restaurant dinners etc to show Dutton wrong that they were too scared to Go to restaurants. Woeful politicians “ruling over us”. Turnbull silent, useless, weak. FIZZA.

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