Caught up in the politics of race

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 October, 2007, 12:00am

The clock may be well past midnight, but a Melbourne recreation centre is alive with the sounds of dozens of young men kicking lumps out of one another.

Ramadan Soccer was the brainchild of local police, aimed at keeping youths who fasted between sunrise and sunset during Islam's holiest month from seeking trouble on late-night streets. Judging by the looks on the assembled faces - almost exclusively African and black - it has been a big success.

'I'm here to try to stop fighting,' 19-year-old Sudanese refugee Sadan explains. 'Why would you want to end up in jail?'

This annual soccer competition is an example of the kind of initiatives that bolster the country's reputation for offering a helping hand to the planet's most desperate and needy. Yet in recent weeks events have taken an ugly and sinister turn, and Australia's government once again stands accused of whipping up racist sentiments in pursuit of political gain.

The fires were lit this month when Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews claimed African refugees were forming race-based gangs and engaging in crime and violence. Singling out Sudanese refugees and their poor levels of education, he declared they were struggling to settle into the Australian way of life.

Those concerns, Mr Andrews said, explained partly why the federal government had decided to halt African immigration until next July.

When Mr Andrews first made this announcement - two months earlier - there was no mention of any problems. Australia had simply reached its African quota for the year and would be focusing more on people from places like Iraq and Myanmar.

But by the beginning of this month, an election campaign was looming, and if repeated disastrous opinion polls were to be believed, the government was facing political oblivion. Mr Andrews chose to speak out after being asked about Sudanese refugee Liep Gony, who had been beaten to death a few days earlier in the Melbourne suburb of Noble Park. The same day, it emerged police had charged two Caucasian men with the 18-year-old's murder.

'I have been concerned that some groups don't seem to be settling and adjusting into the Australian way of life as quickly as we would hope,' Mr Andrews said. 'And therefore it makes sense to put the extra money in to provide extra resources, but also to slow down the rate of intake from such countries as Sudan.'

Critics call such remarks 'dog whistling' - when a politician directs a message at one distinct group of voters, knowing it won't be picked up by many others.

Arguably, its most successful employment was in 2001, when a Norwegian freighter, the Tampa, picked up 438 boat people from a sinking ship and sailed towards Australian waters.

At that time an election was on the horizon, and John Howard's coalition government was flagging in opinion polls. Sensing an opportunity, the prime minister refused to let the asylum seekers onto Australian soil. A prolonged standoff was interrupted by the events of September 11, followed by open speculation that terrorists could be among the desperate human cargo.

Mr Howard's mantra - 'we will decide who comes to Australia and the circumstances under which they come' - proved hugely popular, paving the way for a comprehensive election victory soon afterwards. With another election set for next month, that same government - even further adrift in the polls this time - has been accused of playing the race card again.

'This government is well known for benefiting from immigration-related policies,' says Abeselom Nega, chairman of the Federation of African Communities Council.

He has lodged a complaint against the immigration minister with the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission.

'He is trying to enhance his government's election prospects at the expense of many vulnerable communities,' says Mr Nega.

While Mr Andrews strongly denies those allegations, his remarks sparked national debate and heightened tension in the small pockets of urban Australia where African refugees are now visible.

In another incident, a Sudanese youth was attacked viciously in the Melbourne suburb of Melton. Ajang Gor's attackers then sent text messages from his mobile phone to stunned family members.

'Welcome 2 australia u jigaboo f***s', read one. It was signed: 'Melton blood gang'.

The same evening, drunken Sudanese men who had been to Mr Gony's funeral earlier that day assaulted a policeman who had asked them to move on. Witnesses said four of the group hit and kicked the officer, but several others tried to drag them away.

Victorian police chiefs downplayed the attack as an 'accidental confrontation', blaming emotion and alcohol rather than race.

'That could easily have happened with a number of white youths,' assistant commissioner Paul Evans told Southern Cross Radio. 'Drunks fight, and I don't care what colour you are.'

Mr Evans described the majority of African immigrants as 'first rate' and law-abiding, despite having fled poverty, drought, famine and war-stricken homelands.

At odds with Mr Andrews' assertions - which his department has admitted are based on 'anecdotal' evidence - Africans are not over-represented in official crime statistics. After 2001, they made up the majority of the 13,000 refugees accepted each year by Australia on humanitarian grounds, but the government has now reduced the quota to 30 per cent.

'What Kevin Andrews said about refugees from Sudan suggests that he hasn't the faintest idea what helping refugees is all about,' prominent refugee advocate Julian Burnside QC told the Australian Jewish News.

'He says they have trouble integrating. Let's assume that to be so, but wouldn't you expect that from people who have been severely traumatised? What does he want? Only refugees with perfect English, PhDs and no personality problems?'

While the government would have expected criticism from the likes of Mr Burnside, support elsewhere has also been hard to find.

Even in the knee-jerk world of talkback radio - normally populated by the government's most ardent backers - most callers expressed support for the plight of refugees.

Many were moved by the eulogy read by Gony's mother at his funeral.

'Liep has been here for eight years. Liep is a citizen,' Martha Ojulo told hundreds of mourners. 'We have come here from different places, and we are all Australian.'

Many of the refugees who attended are furious with Mr Andrews, and fearful because of the heightened anxiety his remarks have created. One Sudanese youth, Issiah, told The Age newspaper his employer was now sending him home from work by taxi.

He described a recent train journey. 'Everyone was looking at me, thinking that I might do something. It made me feel bad.'

Melbourne policeman Dinesh Nettur has heard similar sentiments. The senior constable runs Ramadan Soccer, and at the final last week, several participants expressed fears about their personal safety.

'A couple of the boys told me they were concerned,' says Constable Nettur, who is one of the Victorian force's multicultural liaison officers.

He likens the tense atmosphere to the weeks following September 11 when Muslims were abused and branded terrorists.

'These boys are the ones who already cop snide remarks on the street and at bus stops,' he says.

'It's hard to say [what's going to happen]. Initially you might find a little bit of a spike in racist comments and that sort of stuff.'

Sudanese community leader Samuel Kuot says an apology by Mr Andrews would help diffuse the tension, but the minister is sticking to his guns.

'I'm not proposing to apologise for saying what people are concerned about,' he says.