Are African Youth Gangs in Australia a Real Threat?

Prevention is the right solution to Australia's African youth gang activity.

Posted Feb 07, 2018

Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse
Source: Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse

This post was written by Dr. Stephane Shepherd (pictured left), a visiting professor in forensic mental health at the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He is a senior lecturer at the Centre for Forensic Behavioural Science at Swinburne University of Technology, Australia. He conducts research in violence risk assessment and cross-cultural mental health.

Since moving from Australia to Baltimore, Maryland in the fall of 2017, to assume a visiting professor appointment at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse, I’ve not had much time to monitor the Australian daily news cycle save for the occasional glance online. Yet the recent media frenzy and ensuing pandemonium gripping my home state of Victoria have been almost impossible to overlook. Headlines like “African Gang Crisis” and “Deportation Awaits Jailed African Thugs” were emblazoned across the pages of Australia’s major news outlets since the beginning of the new year. Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull weighed in to blame the leader of the opposition party for the “growing gang violence and lawlessness,” which was covered by The New York Times.

This was not the first time I had witnessed headlines of this nature. A similar sentiment was conveyed in response to a series of violent offenses (affray, aggravated burglaries), committed by young Sudanese Australians in Victoria in 2016. As a research scientist in the discipline of forensic mental health, I seek to understand the factors that underpin law-breaking behaviors, particularly across different cultural groups. I had previously written an academic paper on the offending patterns and ensuing media coverage in relation to the offending by Sudanese Australian youth in 2016.

This time, however, it is not lost on me that 2018 is an election year for the state of Victoria and therefore fertile ground for unabashed ‘law and order’ posturing. However, this commotion begs the obvious question—is Victoria, a state with one of the lowest imprisonment rates in the country, struggling to overcome a surge of so-called African gang activity?

The sequence of incidents that have ostensibly upset an entire state includes multiple episodes of public vandalism and the assault of a police officer. These offenses are problematic and should be of concern. The attack on an unsuspecting police officer was particularly brazen and reprehensible. Yet such crimes are not unheard of and tend to occur throughout the course of a year without sustained public interest. On this occasion, the perpetrators shared a specific ethnic heritage, which often lends itself to pronouncing unconnected offenses as a ‘spree’, ‘spate’ or ‘crisis’.  Moreover, the African ancestry of the perpetrators touched on another hot-button issue concurrently­­—immigration.

Here’s a brief background: Between 1996 and 2015, Australia accepted thousands of South Sudanese refugees as part of a humanitarian intake. Many of the displaced South Sudanese had endured multiple traumatic experiences including exposure to violence, family separation, and abject poverty as they fled war-torn Sudan. Re-settlement in Australia brought new challenges. Few Sudanese arrived with a grasp of the English language and many possessed disrupted education and employment histories. The lower levels of educational attainment and prospects for employment had implications for the socio-economic status of many new Sudanese Australians. Financial hardship, initial reliance on government payments and the social challenges of residing in predominantly low-income jurisdictions, can produce unstable and discouraging environmental contexts with fewer opportunities for upward mobility and the development of legitimate social capital. These issues are heightened when migration patterns consign disproportionate numbers of unmonitored young males to such settings, where boredom, frustration, alienation and law-breaking activities manifest.

The Sudanese-born population in Australia is disproportionately young and male. Almost half are under the age of 25 and there is an estimated gender imbalance of 10 percent (in favor of males). Moreover, the ratio of Sudanese-born people below 50 to those above 50 is at eleven to one. In other words, the Sudanese-born youth population drastically outnumbers the adult population. Caregivers and parents, who are often coping with family separation and their own integration stressors are sometimes unable to provide the support, guidance, and monitoring for younger relatives, some of whom have complex needs (including mental health and behavioral problems) and are susceptible to negative influences. Crime statistics indicate that only a small percentage of those who are justice-involved in Victoria are Sudanese. The figures also point to a serious over-representation of Sudanese in both youth and adult correctional populations. The significance of these figures has been both emphasized and downplayed. The magnitude of the problem may be more critical to some if Sudanese Australians were 5 percent of the Victorian population and not .1 percent. It is also true that the bulk of Sudanese Australians are law-abiding members of society.

So is there really a pervasive African gang crisis? If we are to take the recent hyperbolic headlines literally, probably not.

Are there a number of young Sudanese-Australian men committing acts of violence and other anti-social behaviors around Melbourne? Yes. Dramatic headlines aside, denying that there is a dilemma here seems disingenuous and undermines attempts to facilitate meaningful solutions. Instead, constructive responses are required rather than a prolonged debate over the existence of the problem or its magnitude.

A discourse on improved regional planning, resources and sector coordination for refugee intake should be a priority. This should comprise the current need for hands-on family integration support, school preparation, more intensive English language instruction, counseling, mentoring, tutoring and avenues to work experience. Practicable law enforcement strategies should also be a key component of this discussion. Given that the offending behaviors appear to be restricted to a small group of youth, a firm and targeted response here seems sensible. This requires focused attention on the “hard cases” or key offenders whose behaviors are most at risk. Community BBQs and sports days organized by police to interact with Sudanese youth will not deter the violent recidivists.

The impending election will deliver us our fair share of anxiety-stoking rhetoric on this matter. Nonetheless, the genuine public concern is evident and warrants both urgent and level-headed courses of action.