What's behind the 'African gangs' fallout?

Are Australia's African communities really experiencing a 'gang' crisis?

A spate of crimes involving Australians of African heritage over the past year has triggered debate over whether or not there is a crisis with African 'gangs' in the country - more specifically, in Victoria.

Why is this community in the news again?

The weekend death of 19-year-old woman Laa Chol in Melbourne's CBD has once more inflamed debate.

Ms Chol was reportedly stabbed at a party in the EQ Tower. Investigators reportedly said they believed everyone at the apartment was of African heritage. 

A 17-year-old boy was charged with murder on Monday. 

Victoria Police has dismissed suggestions Ms Chol's death was related to "warring factions" within Melbourne's South Sudanese community. 

Her family also said she had no connection to "so-called gangs". 

“She just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time,” a family member told The Age.

Laa Chol died in the early hours of Saturday.
Source: Instagram

Despite this, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton blamed "Victoria's gang problem" for the woman's death.

"There is a major law and order problem in Victoria and more people are going to be hurt until the rule of law is enforced by the Victorian Government,” he told The Age. "We don’t have these problems with Sudanese gangs in NSW or Queensland."

Ms Chol's death followed a controversial Sunday Night story on African-Australian violence.

"Barely a week goes by when they're not in the news. African gangs running riot, terrorising, wreaking havoc," Channel 7 tweeted.

But the segment was slammed by many as "racist", claims its network has denied.

How has the government reacted?

In January, Mr Dutton made headlines by saying people in Melbourne were "scared to go out at restaurants" at night because of African street gang violence.

"They're followed home by these gangs,

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (left) defended the comments on 'African gangs' made by Immigration Minister Peter Dutton.
Source: AAP

Members of the Coalition have echoed his sentiments since.

During a visit to Melbourne last week, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said "there is a gang issue here and you are not going to make it go away by pretending it doesn't exist".

How have the police reacted?

Victoria Police has acknowledged there are small groups of African-Australian youths causing trouble but downplay concerns about alleged gangs.

Following sporadic acts of violence last year, police established a community taskforce with African-Australian leaders to tackle youth crime in January.[[{"fid":"1591700","view_mode":"body_content","uuid":"4e34be94-9c11-4841-9e55-e5db23305567","type":"media","attributes":{"height":"436","width":"700","style":"font-size: 13.008px;","alt":"Victorian Deputy Commissioner Andrew Crisp (left) and Chief Police Commissioner Graham Ashton listen as African community leader John Kuot speaks during a press conference in Melbourne, Wednesday, January 10, 2018. (AAP Image/Ellen Smith) NO ARCHIVING","title":"Victorian Deputy Commissioner Andrew Crisp (left) and Chief Police Commissioner Graham Ashton listen as African community leader John Kuot speaks.","class":"media-element file-body-content"}}]]

At the time, Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton said there had been "an increase in public disorder and public behaviour, misbehaviour in public by groups of young people".

He added that while there was "street gang behaviour", there were not "structured, organised gangs" of African-Australian youths.

What do the numbers say?

According to figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, NSW had 20,051 youth offenders in 2015-16, Queensland 12,931 and Victoria 8,726.

Figures from Victoria's Crime Statistics Agency show that Victorians born in Sudan were responsible for just 1 per cent of all crimes committed in 2017.

"The statistics absolutely do not support that we have a gang problem in Victoria, the statistics do not support that we have increasing crime in Victoria and the statistics show overwhelmingly that the largest number of offenders in Victoria are Australian born," said Dr Rebecca Wickes, a senior lecturer in criminology at Monash University.

"It's about perception, and it's using perception for votes," Ms Wickes said.

It's about perception, and it's using perception for votes

Dr Rebecca Wickes, Monash University.

But figures show the community is over-represented in some categories of crime. The agency said young Sudanese-born people committed three per cent of serious assaults, five per cent of car thefts and 8.6 per cent of aggravated burglaries in 2017. 

How have community leaders reacted?

Achol Marial, youth affairs officer for the South Sudanese Community Association in Victoria, told SBS News it was unfortunate that Mr Turnbull would make such "damaging and inaccurate" statements.

"We have youth experiencing racism and racial profiling everywhere they go; if our PM is doing this, what's not to say that the rest of Australia is going to think that way as well, or behave that way also," Ms Marial said.

"[Politicians] need to realise that it's a sensitive issue and it should be looked at properly and carefully so that they don't damage a small community that is trying its absolute best to integrate into the Australian culture."

Achol Marial, the Youth Affairs Officer at the South Sudanese Community Association in Victoria, was saddened by Malcolm Turnbull's comments.
Source: South Sudanese Community Association in Victoria Inc.

Community leader and lawyer Maker Mayek told ABC TV on Sunday night he was disappointed by the interventions of Mr Turnbull and Mr Dutton over the past week.

"If you really want to talk about crime in Victoria, talk about crime in general ... Crime has no colour," he said.

Mr Mayek did acknowledge there was an over-representation of Sudanese-Australians in crime statistics but "the main problem here is making this an election issue".

At a meeting between police and Victoria's African-Australian community earlier this year, Cameroonian-Australian Sherry-Rose Watts admitted there have been problems amongst youth.

"There's disengagement, there are some issues around drug and alcohol usage. Constantly straddling multiple cultures ... is a struggle for many from migrant and refugee backgrounds," Ms Watts said.

What's next?

Throughout the year, several protests have been organised in Melbourne in support of the African-Australian community. The next such event has been triggered by the controversial Channel 7 segment.

A "peaceful" protest at the Channel 7 newsroom in Docklands, Melbourne is planned for 28 July. 

Organiser Titan Debirioun said members of the African community were fed up with being vilified and demonised by the media.

"We understand that a minority of our community has been involved in criminal activity, we do not at all condone their actions however they are not a representation of our community as a whole," he wrote in a Facebook post.

Ahmed Hassan, director of outreach group Youth Activating Youth, said the next step was for Mr Turnbull to engage more directly with African-Australian youth.

"I would actually invite Mr Turnbull to sit down with these young people and have a discussion and ask them what they have found Australia like, what barriers do they face day-to-day, where the prime minister is able to assure them the government is going to be working with them hand-in-hand."

Additional reporting: AAP

Published 24 July 2018 at 7:57am, updated 24 July 2018 at 9:16am
By Nick Baker, Sarah Wiedersehn