African communities confront police over crime statistics

By Thokgor Reech

Recent crime statistics released by Victoria police has caused tension between the force and the African-Australian community.

Last week African youth organised a forum to dispute police figures, which indicate that crime among Sudanese and Somali youth in Victoria is alarmingly high.

In August police released a report indicating that 0.92% of all offences in Victoria were committed by the Sudanese, while 0.35% of offenders were said to be Somali. The data went on to say that among the Sudanese community that 7.1% were lawbreakers while 6.1% of the Somali population fell into this category.

 The African Youth Forum challenged Victoria Police claiming the crime statistics were discriminatory.  Community members urged Victoria police to stop releasing incomplete crime statistics and figures that were targeted at particular ethnicities.

“No matter what gender, age or colour we are, we are all Australians”, said one community representative. The African Youth Forum felt it was essential to put an end to stereotypes that painted African youth as violent. Community members argued stereotypes only created a bad image for the entire African community in the eyes of other Australians.

 The forum also discussed the importance of and need for both African communities and Victoria police to work hand in hand to support disengaged youth. In one statement a community representative said, Victoria Police did not make any allowances for the fact that African “kids are kids”, and often behaved like other kids in the wider community.

Victoria Police spokesman Sergeant D. Jeffrey told the African Youth Forum, police produced the figures in response to “a request from the media”. However he did not answer how police had arrived at these figures.  

But Sergeant Jeffrey did admit that the data could be skewed, as it was possible that people arrested and charged might falsely identify themselves as being Sudanese or Somali.

He also added that the crime statistics were likely to be influenced by community attitudes. Sergeant Jeffrey said, given that the Sudanese and Somali communities were newcomers in Australia, it was possible that the wider community blamed them for crimes without always being sure that their accusations were correct. He added that this had happened to other nationalities settling in Australia in the past.

The community forum also expressed concern about remarks made by Deputy Commissioner Tim Cartwright who had suggested that Melbourne’s so called African crime problem was causing similar tensions in Victoria to those that led to the Cronulla riots in Sydney back in 2005.

Forum representatives flatly rejected Mr Cartwright’s statement, collectively agreeing that there was no link between African crimes committed in Victoria and the Cronulla riots, because there was no element of racial tension involved.

Forum attendees were united in their view that the issues and problems facing their youth presented a huge challenge for the entire African-Australian community. They felt this was partly exacerbated by the fact that police had more power over their kids, which made it difficult for families to control their kids.

It was stated that teenage African-Australians particularly found themselves caught between their parents and the police and found them selves at higher risk of turning to crime.

The forum was bold in dismissing the police crime report as “simply showing a lack of understanding about Sudanese and Somali communities and what makes them tick”. Community leaders agreed the major obstacle facing them was the great divide in the ‘life experience and cultural differences between members of the police force and young Africans’.

As a means of moving forward, many participants in the forum spoke about the need to increase education and employment among the African youth to help reduce crime.

The forum also discussed the need for the Australian Government to provide sport and recreational centres that could be financially subsidised as a way of reducing crime among young Africans by offering activities that attracted them.

 The wish list also included a plea to the State Government to help create job opportunities and provide additional English language educational courses as it was collectively agreed that the 510 hours of English lessons provided by the Federal Government was not meeting the needs of most new African migrants.

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The ‘Sudanese Brawls’

By Kot Monoah

The media coverage of the Ms South Sudan Pageant is yet another example of the negative coverage faced by the Australian Sudanese Community. As we know, the media is fond of linking brawls and violence to the Sudanese community as illustrated in the media coverage as follows.

Migrants from Sudan, both law-abiding and law-breakers, have been equally tarnished in the past week with a welter of bad publicity about brawls, riots and assaults on cops, all linked to two “Sudanese beauty pageants”.

“Another Sudanese brawl injures three” was the headline in The Age. “Police attacked as they try to stop fighting between Sudanese,” was the heading in the Herald Sun.  Not a good time to be a refugee from Sudan in Melbourne. Murdoch’s national Oz broadened it out to rope in everyone from the Dark Continent (Africa): “Violence clouds future of African pageants”.  Alongside these Sudanese reports were The Age reports of a foreign student returning home to India because he was “bashed unconscious by five men he describes as African”.

The Sudanese violence was no surprise toVictoria’s deputy top-cop, Sir Ken Jones. As he pointed out on 3AW radio, “the nation of Sudan has been wracked with violence and war for decades and migrants, particularly young males, come with that violence as their background modeling”.

He furthered his opinions that, “Young refugees from war-torn countries often struggled to adapt to new laws and ways of living in other countries”, he said. “The youngsters coming out of there have known little else and it does take them a long time to make the transition”.

The media coverage and commentary as illustrated above depict that when some Sudanese pop a cork; the whole “community” cops the flak.

I personally had the delight of attending the Ms South Sudan pageant show on Saturday the 23 April 2011. Indeed it was an exciting show with enthusiastic young people supporting the beauty contestants. The show that night ended peacefully at the Springvale Town Hall.

The media has alleged that violent brawls occurred at a Ms South Sudan related after-party in Clayton. However, what the media has failed to understand is that this event was not related to the Ms South Pageant.  The pageant had finished the night before.

The organisers of the pageant were approached by a group of DJs who wanted to thank them for organising a successful beauty pageant as well as for supporting the models as role models for Sudanese women. The DJs asked them to guarantee the party venue at Clayton.

The after-parties were not hosted by the Ms South Sudan Pageant but rather guaranteed the venue to the DJs with stipulated rules. Ms South Sudan Australia restricted the consumption of alcohol at the party, and the violence at the party in Clayton was not the responsibility of Ms South Sudan Australia. It is unfortunate that these brawls coincided with the Ms South Sudan Australia Pageant.  Alcohol fuelled violence occurs regardless of ethnicity, and is in fact a problem affecting Australian society at large. 

I have watched the media reporting of these events with horror. How could these unrelated brawls have been linked with the Ms South Sudan pageant show?

I was approached by Channel 9 and The Age reporters in relation to an unrelated brawl which occurred on Monday night at Pennell Reserve in Braybrook.

I told the reporters that the brawl was unrelated to the pageant but the media coverage linked it to the Ms South Sudan pageant show nevertheless.

Such coverage reveals and reinforces misconceptions about the Sudanese community. The actions of drunken persons are not ethnic issues but alcohol issues.

Such media coverage seems to stem from ignorance and a failure to observe the ethical obligations of journalism. The message that ought to have reached the Australian community should have been that:

Ms South pageant show aims to create opportunities for young Southern Sudanese women to empower them towards greater self confidence and enhance their strength to address a diverse range of needs. It is an opportunity to celebrate as a community the ambitions of young people and their leadership.

It is expected that journalists and people in positions of power provide a correct version of events and comments that do not racially profile a community. This type of misinformation can breed hate and the vilification of certain community groups. Journalists need to be sure their stories are accurate because inaccuracy has serious consequences for those who have been misrepresented.

Kot Monoah is a practising Australian Lawyer of Sudanese origin.