Widespread rejection of racist scapegoating

October 19, 2007

Claims by immigration minister Kevin Andrews that African refugees are less capable of resettling in Australia than other migrant groups have been met with widespread condemnation by welfare, community and human rights organisations.

Andrews' racist assertions were an attempt to justify his government's reduction of the African refugee quota to a mere 30% of Australia's total annual humanitarian intake (a shamefully low total of just 13,000 places). This 30% quota has already been reached this financial year, so no new applications will be considered until next July.

Andrews told media in early October that "some groups" weren't adequately "adjusting to the Australian way of life", so "it makes sense to put the extra money into providing extra resources, but also to slow down the rate of intake from countries such as Sudan". With nothing more than anecdotal "evidence" to back up his claims, Andrews cited serious problems with African youths forming gangs and engaging in crime.

Infamous xenophobe Pauline Hanson immediately jumped on the bandwagon to endorse the government's move with one of her signature racist diatribes. "Do you want to see your daughter or a family member end up with AIDS", ABC News Online quoted her asking, as she claimed that further African immigration would increase crime and violence and lead to an increase not only in HIV infections, but also leprosy!

Federal Labor, in predictable "me too" fashion, responded to Andrews' Tampa-style pre-election scapegoating campaign by announcing its support for cutting the African refugee intake.

The corporate media wasted no time in launching a sensationalist fearmongering campaign. The October 8 edition of ABC's Media Watch exposed the blatant manufacture by channels 7, 9 and 10 in their October 3 Melbourne news coverage of a story about "Sudanese gangs" supposedly creating terror. All used as "evidence" footage of violence and theft in a Noble Park bottle shop. However Media Watch showed that none of those filmed engaging in violence were Africans. The single African youth visible was not participating in the affray, and was later revealed to be 18-year-old Sudanese-born Liep Gony, who was bashed to death in late September.

However the facts began to emerge amid the hysteria, as migrant service organisations, the human rights commissioner and even the police rejected Andrews' fabrications. Victorian police commissioner Christine Nixon told 3AW radio that "When you look at the numbers we're talking about, the young Sudanese who actually come into custody or dealt with us, only really make up about 1% of the people we deal with ... they're not, in a sense, representing more than the proportion of them in the population".

After Andrews had used Gony's murder as an example of violence among Sudanese migrants, it was revealed that those charged over the brutal attack were not Sudanese, but white Australians.

In an open letter to the government published in the Australian's education supplement on October 9, 165 university academics including a range of health experts stated that "We know of no empirical evidence that refugees from particular countries find it more difficult to integrate into Australian society compared to others", adding that "Australia has a responsibility to ensure the trauma of the refugee experience is not further exacerbated by racism and discrimination in the resettlement context."

Sudanese community leaders strongly objected to the racist slander, denying allegations of Sudanese youth gangs. Choul Deng Gai from the Sudanese Community Association of Australia told AAP that groups of Sudanese gather together not as gangs but to socialise. "It is something very national and cultural. It doesn't pose any threat to anyone", he explained.

Haidar Abdalla, secretary-general of the Liverpool Australian Sudanese Community, told Green Left Weekly that he was shocked by Andrews' statement and that his community had been deeply affected. He said many of the kids in his community — who had felt settled here, "playing rugby and cricket and having barbeques" — now "cry, they say they want to stay home and not go to school because they are being told they are not Australian".

In a June 15 letter to the Liverpool Australian Sudanese Community, Andrews had written that the federal government would continue to accept refugees from Africa and that it acknowledged the Sudanese community in Liverpool was "contributing greatly to Australia's future". Abdalla asked: "Why did he change his mind? What are the hidden reasons? Is it for the election?"

Abdalla highlighted the absurdity of Hanson's claims that African refugees spread disease in Australia, explaining that "before getting an entry visa, refugees must pass the medical check".

Andrews' claims about the failure of refugees to "integrate" says more about the lack of adequate services provided by his government than the behaviour of new arrivals. "What do you do to help Sudanese people to integrate into Australia?" Abdalla wants to ask Andrews, citing long waiting lists for furthering English and other studies.

According to the October 4 Melbourne Age, local south Sudanese community leader Gatwech Kulang also called for greater resettlement assistance: "There are a lot of NGOs and service providers that are doing the work, but not working together with the community."

When Andrews announced the refugee cutbacks in August, he stated that "[t]he intake from the Africa region reflects an improvement in conditions in some countries and an increase in the number of people returning to their country of origin". However the war in Darfur in Sudan's west, which has so far cost the lives of more than 450,000 people and displaced millions, continues; vast elements of the peace agreement that ended the war with the country's south remain unimplemented and little rebuilding or improvement in people's living conditions has occurred in the south; and throughout Sudan all people suffer as they are denied democratic rights and their basic needs are neglected while resources are diverted into the military budget.

The cuts have increased the stress and uncertainty for those who are desperately waiting for family members to join them in Australia. "Many have family waiting in Kenya or Cairo. Now they have to wait at least another 10 months and we don't know what will happen after July", Abdalla said.

Andrews' lies have also encouraged racist abuse and violence against African migrants. ABC News reported on October 10 that according to John Moi from the Sudanese community in the NSW town of Wagga Wagga, Sudanese migrants have been vilified on the streets since Andrews' outburst.

Abdalla told GLW that on October 11, a group of up to 12 young people making racist taunts attacked some Sudanese youths who were walking along the street in Liverpool. One young Sudanese man had to undergo an operation in Liverpool hospital the following day after his jaw was broken.

On October 9 in the Melbourne suburb of Melton, a young Sudanese-born man was bashed by four men who stole his mobile phone and wallet, before using his phone to send racist messages to the victim's brother.

Adelaide's Sunday Mail reported on October 14 that Simon Angok, secretary of the Sudanese Australian Community of South Australia, wrote a letter demanding an apology from Andrews, arguing that his "discriminatory and insensitive comments" amount to the "demonisation of a community of people who have suffered and escaped from the tyranny of brutal dictatorship". He wrote that the government's stance had "caused a lot of anger, grief and anxiety in our community, let alone inciting racist people to attack members of our community".

An open letter signed by more than 60 organisations including the Refugee Council of Australia, the National Council of Churches in Australia, Amnesty International, the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission, Australian Lawyers for Human Rights, the Liquor Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers' Union and the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils Inc, was published in the Australian, urging "all Australians, particularly our elected representatives, to stand up in support of African refugees who have resettled in Australia, to support their further resettlement and family reunification, and to strengthen services that make the transition to Australia easy".

AAP reported on October 5 that the Federation of African Communities Council was lodging a complaint of racial discrimination with the Human Rights Commission. The organisation's chairperson, Abeselom Nega, said as a result of the denigration of the African community, "we are exploring all options including using the legal framework of this country to lodge our complaint, and we will be exploring international frameworks as well to ensure the human rights and equal opportunity of our members are protected".

Abdalla told GLW that a meeting was being planned in Liverpool on October 28 aiming to bring together the different parts of the Sudanese community and local MPs to discuss how to respond to Andrews. More than 200 people attended a public meeting in Wagga Wagga on October 13 called by local Sudanese leaders.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.