Last night when I was driving home, I saw a large group of boys standing on the pavement outside the Housing Commission flats. The boys were predominately of African descent. I was thinking about it when I got home. The boys had been dominating the footpath. Would I have felt nervous if I had been walking on the street and had to push past them? Yes, I would have. Was it because they were African? No, not at all. It was because they were male and blocking the footpath. Regardless of race, religion or class, as a lone woman, I would feel slightly worried about having to pass a large group of boys. I don’t think they were a gang, they were just a group of boys hanging out with nothing better to do, but that’s when boys get up to mischief. It made me think more deeply about the news of the last few days.
It was with a sinking heart that I watched the news the other night with stories of Sudanese gangs terrorising Noble Park and Dandenong. The news release dredged up the crimes committed by Sudanese refugees Taban Gany and Hakeem Hakeem. The implication seemed to be that all Sudanese refugees were lawless drunkards and rapists. Sudanese refugees had become an issue because a young Sudanese man, Liep Gony, was bashed to death at Noble Park railway station by two youths who were not of Sudanese descent. Sudanese people have been victims of crime too.
The response of the Federal government was to say that it had limited the intake of African refugees to Australia because of their difficulties in integrating. Various interest groups and Sudanese community groups then said that this was racist.
Neither response is going to resolve the problem. Just because some Sudanese refugees commit crimes does not mean that all Sudanese refugees have integration problems. On the other hand, if there are problems with a small section of the community, they should be faced and people’s concerns should not simply be dismissed as racist. That dismisses the concerns of people who may feel worried. It’s better to actually confront the concerns and see if there’s any valid points.
Sudan is a very troubled area of the world, to put it mildly. It has been involved in successive civil wars and conflicts with neighbouring countries. The conflicts have been partly on religious, ethnic and tribal grounds. Presently there is a terrible conflict in Dafur where it has been alleged that the Janjaweed militia have committed acts of genocide against rebel groups.
The 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees says that a refugee is a person who:
“owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country…”
Refugee and asylum law only really developed after World War II, where there was a massive number of displaced persons. The idea is that blameless civilians should be granted asylum in other countries which are safe and in which people will be free from war and violence. My attitude toward refugee law is “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.” If Australia were suddenly dragged into a civil war, and I escaped with my family, I would hope that another country would offer me refuge. Some of my dear friends came to Australia as refugees.
Clearly, there would be many Sudanese people who qualified as refugees. Many of those who arrived here would be traumatised and would have seen and suffered terrible things. Many Sudanese would have grown up in a war zone, with little or no laws. Obviously, there are going to be adjustment problems when people who are traumatised suddenly have to adapt to a totally new society. Sometimes, also, ethnic, religious and tribal conflict is also likely to have been brought across to the new country, especially if a person’s family has been killed by another group. That’s just a fact of life (I remember those Serbia-Croatia soccer matches when I was a kid – which turned into mini-civil wars in the stands). Some refugees may be both perpetrators and victims of violence. Furthermore, refugees may have grown up with little or no laws, a very different culture and a different language.
I should think that, given the above factors, it’s clear that at least some Sudanese refugees will have integration problems, and it does no one any good to deny it. It is also true that there are some “bad eggs” within the Sudanese community, as there are within every community. But does that mean the intake of African refugees should be limited? Aren’t integration problems part and parcel of taking in refugees, and to be expected? I don’t think we should exclude Sudanese or African refugees on a blanket basis. That would be unfair to those Sudanese and African people who genuinely wish to live here in peace and harmony with other Australians. It reminds me of times when teachers say “I’m going to give you all detentions because of the behaviour of one person in this class”. I really hated that. The expectation was that the group would discipline the individual as a result – but why should everyone be punished for the crimes of one or a few? I always felt angry, and as if the teacher was abrogating his or her responsibility.
It must be ensured that refugees are given proper support and counselling, as well as education in English language and Australian laws and culture. I have heard of some refugees being dumped in rural towns, with little or no support, and it is hardly surprising that problems then arise. As the UNHCR says, refugees are required to comply with the law of the country which has given them asylum. Refugees must be made aware of our laws and customs (but certainly not in the manner of that really stupid citizenship test). It must also be ensured that community leaders communicate with their members and say that ethnic violence, tribal violence and violent crime are not acceptable in this country.
Also the concerns of shopkeepers and the like in Noble Park should be addressed. They obviously perceive a problem, and while it’s easy just to write them off as “racist”, I think that this actually makes the problem worse and increases resentment. People have a right to feel safe, and there should be a swift response to crime which gives a message that it is not acceptable. I tend to think no excuses should be made on the basis that someone is a refugee.
Thinking back to that group of boys on the pavement yesterday, perhaps boys should be made aware that congregating in a large group can sometimes be intimidating and scary to others, whatever one’s ethnicity or religion. But I suspect it’s just something that naughty, bored boys do, wherever they are from and whatever their culture. And I also suspect that some boys enjoy and cultivate the intimidation factor.
It’s a problem that can’t just be fixed by one side alone. The refugee communities, the police, the government, the social workers and schools have to all work together. And there’s always going to be a few bad eggs. It is a fact of life that there will always be negative aspects to granting asylum to refugees. Some people will have difficulty adapting or will be undesirable or criminal. But there are also immense positives. I think of my dear friend, who came here as a two year old, a stateless refugee. She’s now a success story: a businesswoman with two degrees, a mother and wife, an Australian citizen, an Aussie Rules footy fan (far more than me) and an all-round great person. I couldn’t think of a better addition to Australian society. It’s not worth throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Some common sense from all sides would not go amiss.
Finally, I wish the press would show some restraint as well. Sensationalised reporting creates the sense of a crisis and inflames tension. I’m sure there are genuine problems, but sensationalising them helps nobody. Let’s look at this logically and calmly. What am I saying? It’s election time - no one can look at anything sensibly during election time… Sigh!