Criminologist warns against sensationalising Victoria's African youth crime

As a South Sudanese migrant lambasts young African men for committing violent crimes in Victoria, a criminologist warns the media against overblowing the issue.

A criminologist has urged the media and politicians to check their language when providing commentary on the apparent African youth crime problem in Victoria.

In the past week, federal and state authorities as well as African community leaders have been weighing in on the issue after reports of a spike in 'gang-related' incidents.

Several incidents involving young African men have been making headlines recently including a brawl at a McDonald's in St Kilda, vandalising a community centre in Tarneit, in Melbourne's west, and an Airbnb property in Werribee, southwest of the city. 

But University of Melbourne criminologist Mark Wood said co-offending among young people in Victoria had dropped over the last 10 years.

He said a combination of xenophobia towards new migrant communities, conservative ideology and a market-driven media were conducive to sensational reporting.

"Fear is a good way to sell papers when you're covering crime," Mr Wood told SBS News.

Mr Wood said the news media and politicians must be careful not to blow the issue of 'gang-related' crime in Victoria's African community out of proportion - pointing to coverage of South Sudanese's so-called Apex gang in 2016 as an example.

He said while news media reported offences Apex did commit – such as a brawl between Apex and the rival Islander 23 gang in March 2016 – it went on to link Apex to offences without providing evidence the gang was implicated.

What do the statistics say?

In 2007, about 62.6 per cent of young offenders in Victoria were offending with other people.

That figure went down to about 56 per cent in 2016, according to the state's Crime Statistics Agency.  

People born in Sudan made up less than three per cent of serious assault offenders between October 2016 and September 2017.

According to data from the 2011 Census, people born in Sudan or South Sudan made up 0.11 per cent of Victoria's population.

Meanwhile those born in Australia made up more than 80 per cent in this category of offenders in the same period and more than four per cent were born in New Zealand.

There was a slight increase of Sudanese-born offenders across the three periods of October 2014 to September 2015, October 2015 to September 2016 and October 2016 to September 2017.

As for offenders of aggravated burglary, the percentage of Sudanese-born who committed the crime dropped from 13.1 per cent between October 2015 and September 2016 to 8.6 per cent between October 2016 and September 2017. This percentage was similar between October 2014 and September 2015 to the most recent period.

The number of Sudanese-born offenders who committed non-aggravated burglary also dropped across the three periods.

And the figure for for car thefts and sex crimes also decreased slightly in the past two years up until September 2017.

Those born in Australia made up the majority of offenders across all the crimes mentioned above - in addition to carjacking, and homicide and related offences.

But Flemington and Kensington Community Legal Centre's Anthony Kelly said when reading or hearing crime statistics like this, people needed to keep in mind the average age in the Sudanese community was lower.

Flemington and Kensington Community Legal Centre services a region where a large number of clients are migrants.

"The over-representation is a misconception and a misconstruction," Mr Kelly told The Guardian.

The use of language

This week, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton said people in Melbourne were "scared to go out at restaurants" at night because of violence by African street gangs.

"People don't see this in NSW, in Queensland, but the reality is people are scared to go out at restaurants of a night time because they're followed home by these gangs, home invasions, and cars are stolen," Mr Dutton told Sydney radio 2GB on Wednesday.

He did not provide specific examples.

Meanwhile Acting Chief Commissioner Shane Patton told media on Tuesday it was a "misconception" the police did not acknowledge the issue and stressed the importance of not elevating the status of these young "thugs".

"They're behaving like street gangs, so let's call them that, that's what they are. We acknowledge that, we acknowledge there is an issue," Mr Patton said.

But he said they formed a minority of the African community in Victoria.

"The vast majority of those in the African community are very good, very decent people, irrespective of their age. They are decent people and we are talking about a small group of African youths," Mr Patton said.

Mr Wood said the media must be careful about using simplistic language, such as the word 'gang', in its reporting about offences committed by African youths.

"'The gang' is perhaps the key 'folk devil' of our day and age – it's easy for newspapers to say 'we have a gang problem'. It's easy for people to latch on to that," he told SBS News.

"Using a term like 'gang' actually has a lot of issues. It can increase the perceived level of fear or risk associated with a particular group," he said.

"In criminology there is the labelling theory thesis. If you can continue to label an individual or group as problematic, then they are actually going to start internalising those views and acting in accordance with that label."

Addressing the underlying causes

Mr Wood also said in propagating the view there's a 'gang' problem, society turns away from the underlying issues.

"We've seen a real absence of that in news media …there's just been no real engagement with those underlying causes," he said.

Research into why young Sudanese Australians committed offences found some of the reasons were related to the unique challenges faced by the members of that community - such as language barriers, obtaining stable housing, facing unemployment and unresolved trauma prior to migration.

"These are the kind of factors that we really need to be addressing, not the kind of 'gang'-related material," Mr Wood said.

- with additional reporting from Louise Cheer

Published 4 January 2018 at 12:33pm, updated 4 January 2018 at 12:44pm
By Andrea Booth