MELBOURNE (NYTIMES) - Australia's Prime Minister has warned of the threat posed by African migrants forming criminal gangs in one of the country's most populous states, but had little statistical evidence to support his claim, leading to accusations of fearmongering and counterclaims of political correctness.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on Tuesday (Jan 2) accused the premier of Victoria, Daniel Andrews - a member of the opposition Labor Party - of failing to address the "growing gang violence and lawlessness" in his state after a recent series of well-publicised crimes by African-born offenders.
Mr Peter Dutton, the home affairs minister, took to a Sydney radio station that same day and said that "political correctness" had rendered leaders in Victoria blind to the crime wave around them.
"We just need to call it for what it is: African gang violence," he said. "The reality is, people are scared to go out to restaurants at nighttime because they're followed home by these gangs."
The men's comments were preceded by several crimes in Victoria's capital, Melbourne, which were attributed to young African-born men, including a violent brawl at a McDonald's, the vandalism of an Airbnb property, and the assault of a police officer at a shopping centre during the holiday period.
But critics of Mr Turnbull's Liberal Party accuse the government of willfully stoking anxieties about migration, assimilation and sentencing for political purposes.
Victoria crime statistics show that Sudanese immigrants are overrepresented in criminal arrests. About 1.5 percent of offenders in Victoria are Sudanese, though Sudanese and South Sudanese immigrants only make up about half a percent of the state's population, according to a parliamentary inquiry conducted last year.
The vast majority of crimes in Victoria are committed by Australian-born offenders. Between June 2016 and June 2017, 1,462 serious assaults were committed by Australian-born youth offenders, compared to 45 for those born in Sudan.
Data from the same time period shows that 98 aggravated burglaries were committed by Sudanese youth offenders, compared to 540 by those born in Australia.
Though crime in Victoria has risen by nearly 20 per cent in the past five years, the government's Crime Statistics Agency reported a 4.9 per cent drop in overall crime there in 2017.
Both police officials and Victorian citizens baulked at Mr Dutton's characterisation of the issue. Ms Lisa Neville, Victoria's acting police minister, described the home minister's comment as "a new low".
On social media, a number of Victorians ridiculed Mr Dutton, posting photos of themselves eating in restaurants with the hashtag #MelbourneBitesBack.
Many have pointed out that the attacks on Mr Andrews, the Victorian premier, coincide with an upcoming state election, which Mr Turnbull hopes will swing the state back under the control of his Liberal Party.
Dr Stephane Shepard, a forensic psychology professor working at Johns Hopkins and Swinburne University, said that the demography of the Sudanese population in Victoria was crucial to understanding the recent crimes.
"It goes back to the migration," Dr Shepard said. "There's a disproportionate amount of young males coming over, as part of the humanitarian intake. Half of the Sudanese population in Australia is 25 or under."
Dr Shepard said the state's Sudanese population represented broad family fragmentation that could explain the disproportionate crime data.
Community leaders said they were disappointed in Mr Turnbull and Mr Dutton's comments.
"I'm really disappointed in the media coverage, but particularly appalled by the way this issue has become partisan," said Ms Carmel Guerra, chief executive for the Center for Multicultural Youth, a Victorian organisation that provides assistance for young migrants. "Rather than scapegoating these young people, we should try to work out what's going on."
Ms Guerra, who also sits on the Youth Parole Board of Victoria, said there were similar anxieties and political efforts when Australia previously experienced large migrations from Vietnam and the Middle East.
"We have seen situations before when new communities struggle initially, then tend to integrate into the broader community," she said. "I don't want to downplay it: There are some real issues that we have to deal with. But that can be done without the hysteria and the racial profiling."