A proposal to crack down on African street gangs by deporting offenders as young as 16 would effectively condemn them to “death sentences”, Sudanese community leaders have warned.
With Melbourne facing a recent outbreak of youth crime, Federal Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has said he is considering strengthening laws to automatically cancel the visas of criminals and boot out youth migrants who commit violent offences causing serious injury.
The changes were proposed by a parliamentary committee headed by Victorian Liberal MP Jason Wood, and have been backed by state Opposition Leader Matthew Guy, whose election campaign against the Andrews Labor Government centres predominantly on law and order.
But African leaders have warned that such a crackdown is out of touch and dangerous, pointing out that many youth offenders were in fact born here, while those who are not Australian citizens would be returning to war-torn death zones if they were to be deported.
“You essentially are cancelling young people’s visas to send them into misery when, in my view, these young people have significant potential to be rehabilitated,” South Sudanese Community Association spokesman Kot Monoah told the committee. “You are also sending them to death zones and condemning them to death sentences.”
Community leader Richard Deng agreed with Mr Monoah’s sentiments on Saturday, calling on the Turnbull government to stop playing politics and to instead work with the Victorian government and police to find solutions.
Last year, for instance, Mr Deng helped set up a team of fluoro-clad volunteers who patrol the western suburbs trying to prevent crime by engaging troubled South Sudanese youth.
The team has expanded significantly, with 30 volunteers now patrolling the Wyndham area, 18 patrolling the streets of Melton, and plans to recruit more volunteers across Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, Maribyrnong and Dandenong.
“We acknowledge there is a youth crisis but we all need to work together,” Mr Deng said. “Simply deporting people is out of touch. Keep in mind a lot of these people were born here. Many of these kids are Australian.”
While law and order has been a longstanding problem for the Andrews Government, the majority of perpetrators are Australian adults, and the overall rate of youth crime has been gradually declining over the past decade.
However, the focus on the African community has intensified in recent weeks following a spate of high-profile offences, including an ugly brawl in St Kilda, the trashing of an Airbnb property in Werribee, and a crime spree in Hillside on Thursday night in which a 59-year-old woman was terrorised by a group of men who stormed the house she was looking after.
In what police described as an “abhorrent” incident by thugs, some of the men held the woman hostage in a front room and hit her in the face, while the others ransacked the property.
With a state election looming in November, the Coalition has seized on cases like this to portray Premier Daniel Andrews as a soft touch, and to attack Victoria’s sentencing and bail system. Labor ministers, meanwhile, have accused the Federal Government of contributing to the problem by cutting funding to migrant settlement services and not doing enough to tackle disadvantage and other underlying causes of crime.
Mr Dutton stoked political tensions on Wednesday by claiming – without evidence – that people in Victoria were too scared to dine at restaurants at night “because they are followed home by these gangs”.
On Saturday, however, Victorian Liberal leader Matthew Guy stopped short of endorsing the federal minister’s comments, saying: “I know people very well in the western suburbs who are legitimately concerned about their own communities. Whether they’re concerned about going out or not, I’ll (leave judgement) to people who are facing that threat direct.
“But there is a crime problem in Victoria that is unique, that is considerable, and that the state government’s doing nothing about,” Mr Guy added. “It’s not about African gangs, it’s about gangs full stop.”