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We must do more for these Sudanese and Somali-born kids

Wednesday, August 29, 2012
by Beverley O'Connor

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I'm baffled as to what senior Victorian police were hoping to achieve this month when they singled out Sudanese and Somali-born Victorians as over-represented in the crime statistics.

It's not about denying there's a problem, it's just the story behind the numbers is not simple.

Police says figures show this group is about five times more likely to offend than the broader community - theft and assault being the most common charges.

But the reality is these disenfranchised young people are not statistics and, to have any influence over them, police have to stop viewing them this way.

Many are traumatised young men who grew up amid the lawlessness of refugee camps, soldiers in - and sons of- protracted civil wars.

Is it any wonder they respond to authority with defiance?

Prominent Melbourne African community leader Abeselom Nega was shocked when the figures came out.

He says meetings had been going on behind the scenes with police to address the root causes of the growing wave of antisocial behaviour and they were blindsided when police came out with the numbers.

"I don't subscribe to the heated online chatter that it was done for racist reasons, but it has been very damaging," he said.

"We are already a visible minority, this just increases the mistrust and makes it easy for the community to see us all as criminals."

Tamar Hopkins, from Flemington and Kensington Legal Centre in Melbourne's inner west, rejects the figures: "Africans are over-represented because the crime stats are based on arrests, not on successful prosecutions," she said.

Abeselom Nega says they sought to get access to the actual conviction numbers, but those figures were not made available.

Ms Hopkins believes deliberately targeting African youth is making matters worse, with plenty of accusations of racial profiling and brutality in her growing case load.

"Often it is the interaction that generates a lot of the charges that follow - resisting police, police assault and failure to co-operate.

"A street setting is a highly stigmatising way to go about genuine engagement," she says.

It's something Sen-Sgt Damien Jones, based in Footscray, says police have learnt first-hand from the young men themselves.

"A heavy-handed approach does not work," he said.

He says alcohol fuels a lot of the problems they deal with on a daily basis and, while not stepping away from the policing needed, they have had to think outside the square.

His unit is off to Kinglake on a community camp this week, taking with them around 40 young men, alcohol and drug service workers and the best frontline officers.

"Once we get them off the grog and talking one to one, a lot of the barriers break down," he says.

Sen-Sgt Jones says the camps, which they run four times a year, provide critical intelligence both ways: "We learn better ways to approach them and they get a better understanding of the job we have to do. Just because we stop one person for legitimate questioning doesn't have to result in a riot by the rest of the group."

He says many feel trapped and without opportunities.

"But then they can barely get themselves out of bed in the morning," he says.

Mr Nega says education is the pathway out but the current training system and the national employment system are failing them: "They are given training that does not lead to genuine job prospects."

He says they've had no response to a funding request to the Federal Government to hold a Melbourne employment forum to address the inequalities.

Victoria Police Deputy Commissioner Tim Cartwright, has since backed away from inflammatory comments he made pointing to the possibility of a Cronulla-style riot if this crime trend were not brought under control.

But the warning he sounded should be heeded: "At Cronulla, you had a big chunk of the community disengaged and coming to a point where you have large-scale civil unrest. That's abhorrent to us."

As a community we can't accept these young men are a lost generation. For all the bounty that Australia offers, without the language skills, education and support to navigate those advantages, it's all too easy to lose your way.

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