If you were an Australian of South Sudanese heritage, you would be scratching your head. The year has started tragically. State media inundated the public with printed stories and images of South Sudanese youth causing havoc in the streets of Melbourne. Press conferences were held one after the other with the Victorian Police admitting, under huge pressure – that it was experiencing an ‘African gang’ crisis. Politicians and commentators alike lined up to fuel the fire. Explanations emerged to make sense of the alleged carnage. South Sudanese family’s breakdown was first to be blamed. Evoking the infamous Moynihan report, absent fathers became the root cause of broken South Sudanese families as well as un-ruled young men. Unemployment, welfare dependency and drug and alcohol have been likewise called upon to explicate the demise of the South Sudanese family. Declarations were made to the effect that South Sudanese youth where a threat to the Australian society since their behaviour was un-Australian. It was concluded that South Sudanese had failed to ‘integrate’. The solutions offered were no less evoking of the pathological rendition of the Black family: police surveillance alongside deportation of the same troublesome South Sudanese youth left unchecked by ‘left leaning’ judges, who, it goes unsaid, should have known better.
To their credit, South Sudanese community leaders such as Kot Manoah and Richard Deng publically acknowledged that something is wrong and accordingly offered to collaborate with the local authorities to address the problem of youth violence in their community. However, they have opposed the proffered diagnosis and solution and, consequently, called upon politicians and media to not frame the issue in divisive and racialising terms. As Melbourne based South Sudanese lawyer Nyadol Nyuon argued on The Drum, youth violence is not a South Sudanese problem. It is, instead, an Australian problem. Many of the offending youth were born and raised in Australia and, as citizens of this country, subjected to a variety of socially alienating experience – neglect in the schools, police harassment in the streets alongside non-responsive welfare support agencies – which should be properly addressed as the underlying issues propelling youth disengagement and anti-social behaviour. In South Sudanese community meetings and in private conversations, a more mundane issue has been discussed as a cause of the problem of youth violence. As both South Sudanese communities and families have moved half of the globe, so their organisation has undergone significant restructuring. Issues of autonomy from the patriarchal figures have emerged with the youth in particular testing the boundaries of freedom afforded by what they perceive to be in flux socio-cultural conditions. In this regard, the authorities’ indifference to the role that families and communities have played in supporting young people transition to adulthood has equally contributed to their social disenfranchisement.
South Sudanese community representatives have acknowledged the suffering that Melbourne residents experienced as a result of the violence committed by some of the South Sudanese youth. The fear that these people felt as a result of this anti-social behaviour is real. The psychological damage created in those neighbourhoods is likewise regrettable. South Sudanese community leaders have condemned these acts of violence and renewed their commitment to work with local authorities to restore confidence in the wider community.
Nonetheless, local Melbourne residents of South Sudanese and African heritage have been threatened by mail or directly harassed on the streets. They have been shouted at ‘go back where you came from’ while being aware that right wing groups like the True Blue Crew, called for a meeting to discuss the problem of ‘African youth gang.’
Australians of South Sudanese and African heritage have found themselves in a very tricky and difficult situation. Many of them are thinking twice about going out in public for the fear of being mistaken for a gang member. So far, no physical attacks against Australians of South Sudanese heritage have been reported. However, this does not mean that the threat of violence has been less effective. Many are now thinking twice about going out. Some youth has even resorted to wear school uniform around the clock to not be mistaken as a gang member. When walking down the street they are all as much alert as suspicious of everyone – ‘what are they thinking? Are they blaming me for the troubles reported in the media? If they are, how can I flee to not be harassed and hurt?’ And when they see the police walking down the street, they pray that the police do not stop and search them, which is by far more humiliating than being harassed by the average person on the street. The public believes that the police is there to protect them and if the police has to stop someone, they must have a good reason to do so.
For Australians of South Sudanese heritage, the allegation of African youth gangs brings painful memories of 2007, when the then Minister for the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) Kevin Andrews declared that South Sudanese humanitarian entrants had failed to integrate. This came on the back of a young Australian of South Sudanese heritage bashed to death by two young white men. In the eyes of Australians of South Sudanese heritage, the DIAC and Andrews were their protectors and supporters as it was in their responsibility to ensure no migrant is exposed to negative public attention. Andrews did not have to justify DIAC’s decision to change the composition of humanitarian entrants in the country in favour of South East Asian refugees who had been waiting in camps for very long. The necessity to reduce the annual intake of South Sudanese refugees had, put it bluntly, nothing to do with the alleged failure on their part to ‘become’ Australians. The reasons behind his intervention were political. Following the footsteps of John Howard, he had rather attempted to manipulate the public’ fears into voting for the Liberal party in the upcoming federal election.
The current media hype about South Sudanese youth gangs was likewise triggered by the upcoming state election in Victoria. Resembling how the Labour Party used allegations of Lebanese youth violence in Western Sydney to generate moral panic and win the 1999 State election, Liberal politicians in opposition have likewise deployed young South Sudanese migrants to induce fear in the community and swing votes to the right.
Australians of South Sudanese and African heritages are waking up to the realities of Australian politics – vulnerable communities are political football. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, South Sudanese humanitarian entrants were used to justify the closing of the border to refugees seeking asylum, who were consequently labelled as ‘boat people’. In contrast to these ‘queue jumpers’, South Sudanese became the epitome of the model refugee who patiently waited for their turn to come to Australia. South Sudanese were the good refugees who furthermore deserved a fair go to rebuild their lives in Australia. The truth is that there was no queue anywhere and the process of settling refugees is much more chaotic and political than the public is made to believe.
Australians of South Sudanese heritage have felt let down and betrayed. They are under pressure to respond. They find themselves in a very difficult situation. Do they join the political spin and media foray and take sides in the political debate? Do they reframe the conversation to depoliticise the debate? Do they sit silently and hope that the storm passes with no one hurt and no damage incurred?
The pressure and psychological torture that racialised communities such as the Lebanese and South Sudanese have experienced through negative media representation push them further away from the center stage of society. The political spin and point scoring over either of them or both reduce them to outsiders whose acceptance become more and more conditional. Many Australians of South Sudanese heritage are now wondering whether they will ever be free from discrimination or future media storms will consign them to the margin of society once and for all.
There is no doubt that Australia has allowed South Sudanese humanitarian entrants to start a new life and South Sudanese have successfully taken up the opportunity. Many young Australians of South Sudanese heritage have done very well and still do. The South Sudanese communities in Australia has the highest number of people who completed higher education per capita compared to communities with a similar background. In the short time they have been in Australia, the community has gifted the wider society with medical doctors, lawyers, engineers, nurses and allied health professionals, sportsmen, social workers, accountants, journalists, town planners, police officers, military officers, and professionals in many other fields. What has not happened yet for South Sudanese is achieving a critical mass of professionals like other communities. This will take some more time, especially if left undisturbed by intrusive state surveillance.
I would like to thank the blog editor Maria Elena Indelicato for her guidance in reshaping this post. Both her edits and suggestions were pivotal to improve the quality of this intervention. I benefited greatly from her expertise, critical review and feedback.