Australia's African community swept up in debate over crimes by 'African gangs'

Incidents involving young men of African origin, including a brawl St Kilda Beach (above) in December 2017, have led to claims by the media in Melbourne that the city was being ravaged by gangs of African youths. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Australia's African community is relatively small but it has regrettably found itself at the centre of a heated national debate in recent weeks.

The saga began with claims by the media in Melbourne that the city was being ravaged by gangs of African youths, particularly from the local Sudanese community.

These stem from several incidents involving young men of African origin, including a brawl last month (December) in which large numbers fought each other and robbed passers-by at St Kilda, one of the city's best known beaches.

The Herald Sun, Melbourne's top-selling newspaper, ran stories on the "African gangs crisis" and described Victoria as a "state of fear".

Australia's hard-line Home Affairs Minister, Mr Peter Dutton, a federal Liberal MP from Queensland, seized on the headlines, saying people in Melbourne were "scared to go out to restaurants at night time because they are followed home by these gangs".

This prompted a rebuttal from the state's Premier, Mr Daniel Andrews, a Labour MP, who insisted the crime fears were overblown and invited Mr Dutton out for dinner.

The state's police chief commissioner, Mr Graham Ashton, said there are no organised gangs and no "crisis" and the streets are safe. Victoria's crime is falling and the state is one of the world's safest places, he said.

But he acknowledged there have been crimes involving young thugs.

"If you put it into context, you've got a few hundred offenders engaging in offending in a city of four-and-a-half million people," he added.

Statistics seem to bear out Mr Ashton's claims.

Victoria's Crime Statistics Agency's figures show the state's Sudanese community is disproportionately involved in crime, but the numbers are small.

Only 0.14 per cent of Victoria's population of over six million is born in Sudan or South Sudan. They, however, make up 1.4 per cent of alleged criminal offenders.

African community leaders acknowledge there are small pockets of problem, like with younger Sudanese migrants. But there is no evidence the broader African community is involved in a crime wave, he said.

A Sudanese lawyer, Ms Nyadol Nyuon, said there has been a "racialisation of the issue".

"When a Caucasian young person commits a crime, they're described as a teenager, a 17-year-old, a man from Dandenong, for example," she told ABC Radio.

"When it's a black person, there's such emphasis on their blackness."

To fight back, members of Australia's African community have been posting images of themselves at university graduation ceremonies or serving in the Australian military or wearing suits at high-profile jobs.

The photographs - posted under the hashtag "#africangangs" - are bland and inoffensive but that is perhaps the point.

In one image on Twitter, a father posted himself holding a newborn with the message: "Another great addition to the growing number of #AfricanGangs".

Most experts said some groups of youths are isolated from their parents and the broader community.

Most of the youths involved in recent crimes are either born in or grew up in Australia. In the past 20 years, about 30,000 migrants from Sudan and South Sudan have moved to Australia.

Some commentators noted Victoria's left-of-centre Labour government faces a state election later this year and this may have encouraged some conservative politicians to portray the state as out of control.

A researcher and expert on recent migrant communities, Dr Melanie Baak from the University of South Australia, is concerned the recent panic will further isolate members of the Sudanese community.

"The long-term impact for the South Sudanese community is likely to be increased exclusion, fear and contempt, rather than what is really required for successful integration - a sense of belonging and inclusion," she wrote on The Conversation website on Jan 10.

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