Analysis & Opinions - The Australian
African Gangs: It's Not Racist to Name It for What It Is
How should we think about recent incidents of violence and anti-social behaviour by first and second-generation immigrants? Or should we just not think about them at all, for fear of thinking something politically incorrect?
Last Friday Victoria police announced they were investigating the attack and robbery of a 27-year-old man by a group of young people “perceived to be of African appearance” while he paid for a parking ticket in Melbourne’s central business district.
Earlier this month a group of young people, described by their victim as “African”, were reported to have bashed a 73-year-old man living opposite a house in Hawthorn they had rented for an all-night party.
We heard the same story in April when a group of young people — again of “African appearance”, according to police — rented a North Melbourne property online for a short-term stay using a stolen credit card and false identity. They partied hard, trashed the house and, on their way out, were reported to have stomped on police cars and thrown garbage bins at police.
In December, homes in Werribee and Altona as well as a community centre at Tarneit, in western Melbourne were trashed, and police acknowledged an ongoing problem with “a small cohort of African youth”.
This pattern of behaviour is not an aberration. It is a feature of failed integration policies in liberal societies the world over. Illustrative of the problem is the reluctance of police, government and the media to name and shame the community groups responsible.
Integration is a perennially difficult policy question. It’s something I have been researching since I settled in The Netherlands in the early 2000s. Since that time, no matter the reality on the ground, tender-hearted multiculturalists have insisted that immigrants import only positive cultural ideas when they arrive. Liberal democratic societies are expected to turn a blind eye to any problematic cultural behaviour they bring with them, especially if the immigrants have brown skin.
Of course, many South Sudanese immigrants and refugees have settled successfully and adapted to their new lives here. And all-night parties, property damage and assaults are carried out by hooligans of all ethnicities. My concern is only with those immigrants who have adjustment problems. We are living in denial if we do not attempt to identify those values that some bring with them that may have been necessary for survival in their countries of origin but lead to conflict and stunt their opportunities here.
One of those is the glaring difference in attitudes towards violence between Westerners and war-torn communities such as South Sudan. As a migrant from that troubled region of East Africa I was accustomed to the use of violence as a way of life in a society up-ended by civil war. In the communities where I grew up in Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia, children were taught that might was right and conflicts were resolved by physical force. Hitting a child or wife was how misbehaviour was corrected; it was not seen as a crime. Children were encouraged to fight out peer squabbles and affronts to the clan. If a child was bullied at school, the parents or siblings didn’t complain to the teacher but mobilised relatives to beat up the bully after class.
In communities such as ours, the police were not viewed as a disciplined service maintaining public order. Interactions with police were always bad news. They only showed up to extort, beat or haul people off to prison, not to resolve conflicts at the neighbourhood level. In Australia and other developed countries, by contrast, the state has the monopoly on violence. Citizens are not permitted to exert physical force over their families or anyone else. When I explained this conceptual difference towards the use of violence to my parliamentary colleagues in The Netherlands 15 years ago, one MP remarked that it sounded medieval. It surprised me to hear Victoria police commander Russell Barrett say the Australian Sudanese community was “just as shocked as the broader community in relation to the incidents we’ve seen recently”. He may be shocked but, if they’re being honest, the Sudanese must be reminded of home.
As set out in this newspaper in May, Victorian Crime Statistics Agency data shows Sudanese immigrants are six times likelier to be arrested than those born in Australia. A disproportionately high incidence of violent crime among immigrant populations is not a uniquely Melburnian phenomenon. It is noticeable in many Western regions that have welcomed and then cocooned new immigrants.
Take two very different Western countries: Sweden and the US. In Sweden, reports of gang warfare, shootings, violent attacks against locals and car burnings are regularly published in Swedish media. Hand grenades shipped north from the Balkans are a favoured weapon among gang members. The suburbs of Rinkeby in Stockholm and Rosengard in Malmo (or “little Mogadishu” as it has become known) are considered “no-go zones”, as are Gottsunda and Valsatra in Uppsala. Ambulance and fire services refuse to enter some areas without a police escort. Parking enforcement, postal services, libraries and other public services are halted periodically due to unsafe conditions. In an official report from 2015, Swedish police explain that distrust for police among these communities makes it difficult for investigators to gather intelligence and fulfil their duties. That distrust is amplified by lenient sentencing for criminals who perceive serving a prison sentence in a Swedish jail as a holiday compared with prison in Somalia, Afghanistan or Libya.
Locals report that the violent gangs comprise mainly first and second-generation immigrants, yet authorities fail to make the connection between their violent behaviour and cultural attitudes.
A study by the Swedish National Council of Crime Prevention found that foreign-born Swedes were four times likelier to be suspected of murder and robbery compared with those born in Sweden to Swedish-born parents. The study notes that “those from North Africa and the Middle East have the highest recorded crime rates”, particularly in relation to more serious violent crime. In particular, they were three times likelier to commit assault, more than four times for robbery and five times for rape.
Across the Atlantic in Lewiston, Maine, the phenomenon of violence perpetrated by groups of young people of “African appearance” exists as well. In Lewiston a loose network of Somali immigrants congregates near Kennedy Park. Reports of violent and seemingly random attacks by the group against other locals have been increasing since the early 2000s. In May a local mother recorded a mob, including children, attacking two local passers-by.
Earlier in the year, a 10-year-old was beaten up by a Somali girl at the park. Lewiston mayor Shane Bouchard admits these attacks are common and blames failed integration policies and poor parenting for the violence.
While there is no evidence of organised gang violence in Lewiston, notorious gangs such as the Somali Hot Boyz and Madhibaan with Attitude have emerged in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where the largest Somali population in the US lives. Similar reports of violent attacks, including the stabbing of a 26-year-old woman by a Somali man in December, illustrate the rising rates of violent crime in the city.
Sheriff Rich Stanek, speaking at a White House summit in 2015, stated that cultural differences were preventing police work. “At first traditional methods for building communities of trust weren’t working. We had language and cultural barriers that required new strategies. Translations were difficult at best. Men didn’t want women at meetings. The greatest barrier of all? Somalis were distrustful of law enforcement because in their home country law enforcement often operates as the arm of an oppressive government.” That sounds familiar.
Victoria police are taking great pains not to make any connection between culture and violence among South Sudanese youth in Melbourne. A police spokesman stated in May that “the problem is not tied to any particular cultural community, but rather it is young people more broadly who tend to be involved” and that the force has a “zero-tolerance policy towards racial profiling”. Yet they have established an African-Australian Community Taskforce to consult community members about preventing these crimes. This special “African” infrastructure conveys the message that Sudanese immigrants and their children need their own style of policing.
In a twisted way, this approach is truly racist. It is an example of the “poverty of low expectations”, which puts political correctness over cultural realities.
Media reporting on the rising incidence of crime among the Sudanese immigrant community has been portrayed by some commentators as racially motivated discrimination. Politically correct apologists have been quick to point the finger at socio-economic disadvantage and institutional racism. One South Sudanese community spokesman suggested that property owners using Airbnb were partly to blame for the increase in crimes committed by his community’s young people.
Most are concerned that revealing the ethnicity of the culprits could cause a backlash against the South Sudanese community. The Victorian bureaucracy is singing from the same hymn book. Equal Opportunity and Human Rights commissioner Kristen Hilton said: “The majority of Victorians who champion multiculturalism should not have to put up with journalists and politicians undermining their communities and workplaces with racially divisive rhetoric.”
Placing this type of taboo on the cultural factors associated with crime is also a feature of the debates in Sweden, the US, Germany, Austria and Britain, all of which are grappling with the same issue. Authorities and media commentators in Europe also worry that pointing out ethnic or cultural roots of crime will spark backlash and ignite race wars. The Asian “grooming” gangs in the north of England and the mass groping of women in Cologne on New Year’s Eve 2016 are two examples of stories the mainstream media was reluctant to report.
In Australia, people deflect from the “culture factor” by focusing on irrelevant details such as whether the phenomenon in Melbourne qualifies as gang behaviour. In Sweden commentators were preoccupied with whether certain areas could be classified as “no-go zones” or “go-go zones”.
The inevitable consequence of placing a taboo on open discussion of the problem is resentment, not just from the victims of crime but from the broader society.
This was explained clearly by the 73-year-old beaten up by partygoers in Hawthorn when he said: “The public needs to take a stand on this sort of violence because the politicians and do-gooders aren’t. We can’t have rampages like this in 21st-century Australia. It’s not acceptable, whether you’re caucasian, Asian or African.”
Let down by their political representatives, voters turn to those who are willing to take a stand. As we have seen in almost every major election in the northern hemisphere in recent years, populists have exploited failed integration policies as a vote-winning electoral platform, from Brexit to US President Donald Trump’s promise to build a wall on the Mexican border, and Alternative for Germany surging into the Bundestag last year. This September’s Swedish election will be interesting. Will the rise of the right-wing Sweden Democrats force the world’s “humanitarian superpower” to reform its integration policies?
When elites fail to address the question of culture, crime and integration, they pave the way for populists who, once in power, often lack the experience and competence to govern. The Palmer United Party was a case in point.
Similarly, in Victoria the “culture and crime” question has become a political football, not just between parties but between tiers of government.
Victoria’s Labor government has accused federal Liberal ministers of weighing in on the issue to bolster the state Liberals’ chances at the ballot box. This week Malcolm Turnbull joined in with “real concern about Sudanese gangs”. He is right to mention the problem, but he also must concede that the federal government ultimately is responsible with its poorly thought out immigration policies.
Where to from here?
In 2015 I developed a framework for identifying the characteristics of those immigrants who would be more or less likely to integrate, based on data from the past 50 years of migration experience from Middle Eastern and African nations to Europe. I identified four common types of immigrant: adaptors, coasters, fanatics and menaces. These categories are not rigidly separate and change across time, but they may be useful for reflecting on the Australian context.
Immigrants are diverse in age, country of origin, gender, language and in the levels of income they enjoyed before embarking on their journey to Europe. Some have been there for generations but more than a million have arrived in the past three years. Nevertheless, they have several things in common. They all came from societies that are not free. Their identities along with their loyalties and views have been shaped by those circumstances. They have attitudes to religion, violence, sex, money and time that are radically different from the attitudes of Europeans.
Empirical data across the board has shown that the European nations that took in these immigrants have struggled to integrate them.
They have not wholly failed. Many African immigrants (I was one of them) have adapted over time by adopting the core values of liberal society, using the freedoms they found in their new home to educate themselves and their children, find employment, start businesses, vote and take part in politics. The problem in Europe is that these adaptors are not numerous enough to be the norm.
The second profile is that of the coasters: men and women with little or no formal education who thankfully accept the welfare state, live off it, and invite their families from abroad to come and partake of it. They see no reason to work because the kind of jobs available to them are of the menial, repetitive sort that pay only a bit more than the benefits they can claim.
Then there are those who came to Europe and turned out to be religious fanatics. They use the freedoms of the countries that gave them sanctuary to spread the pre-medieval practice of political Islam.
Finally, there are those — mostly young men — who chose to become a menace. Some have been subjected to domestic violence, then commit it themselves. The menaces are those immigrants and children of immigrants who trash public and private spaces, who shoplift, steal bicycles and cars. Alcohol and drugs add to their misbehaviour. They drop out of school and tend to be unemployable. They are neither religious nor attached to anything resembling a moral framework. They are takers. What adds to public outrage is the easy access they enjoy to legal aid: at every turn they have lawyers — paid for by the public purse — to get them out of trouble whether with a landlord, immigration officials, or the police.
The young South Sudanese defying laws and social mores in Melbourne are a menace in name and nature. They are reported to have tagged “Menace to Society” on phone photos taken during their rampages of destruction.
While many South Sudanese are adaptors and have publicly condemned the menaces, it is a worry that a wealthy, liberal democracy such as Australia is struggling with what to do about them. If the Australian elite is honest with itself it will concede that integration and immigration policies must go further to ensure Australia admits more adaptors and fewer menaces into the country, whether as economic immigrants or refugees. It does not matter under which circumstances they arrive, as long as they commit to letting go of the cultural practices that stand in the way of successful assimilation.
It makes no sense to blame the immigrants. We cannot reproach people living in places such as war-torn South Sudan for wanting to improve the way they live by coming to the West. But we can blame those democratically elected or appointed to comfortable public service perches for making poor policy choices.
Those politicians, policymakers and institutions serious about addressing the issue should not be inhibited by the do-gooders who want to shut down discussion. The do-gooders hardly ever suffer the broken windows and bones. They rarely live in the communities they opine about. They take no responsibility for the social problems we see in parts of Victoria today — and the erosion of trust in government their approach has brought about.
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