Shane Green, The Age (Melbourne), April 27, 2011
AUSTRALIA’S inability to accept “blackness” is working against the settlement of African refugees, according to an eminent community leader.
Dr Berhan Ahmed, head of the African Think Tank and the 2009 Victorian Australian of the Year, also said Australia’s humanitarian assistance was “stopping at the airport”, and failed to provide African migrants with the skills to find jobs and engage in society.
Dr Ahmed was speaking out after two brawls involving the Sudanese community, both of which followed a beauty pageant and ended in violent attacks on police.
He condemned the violence as “appalling and shameful”, but said it was important to analyse the problems that led to the incidents.
Africans experienced racism daily, said Dr Ahmed, a refugee from Eritrea who arrived in Australia in 1987. “Australia has a black history with black people, and Africans coming with a black skin, they are just copping that sort of Aboriginal black treatment.
“We should have been ambassadors of change and acceptance for blackness. The system still has a problem accepting that blackness.”
Australia has a history of failure on blackness, he argued, “and that’s what’s halting Africans in their settlement”.
Dr Ahmed said African refugees were encountering racism when trying to find work. “People are changing their names to apply for a job. They are putting a different name to be called for an interview. And when they see their face, they tell them, ‘Oh sorry, we’ll call you again’.”
The Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission last year reported that young African Australians were suffering entrenched racial discrimination. After consultations in Dandenong, Commissioner Helen Szoke said “systemic barriers” restricted job prospects for young African Australians, who also said they felt targeted by police.
Anecdotal reports suggested that some employers tried to avoid hiring refugees by framing job descriptions that effectively excluded them.
Dr Ahmed, who last month gave evidence to the Federal Parliamentary inquiry into multiculturalism, said another problem for migrants was boredom and lack of engagement. This resulted from a lack of adequate training and education to equip Africans for jobs.
He argued that refugee policies had not changed in line with the shift in Australia from a manufacturing to a knowledge and service economy. Previous migrant intakes were absorbed into factories, and it was not unusual to hear of people who had not learned English throughout their working lives.
“Now our economy is a knowledge and service economy,” he said. “On the first day you have to be able to speak and write [English]. You have to have the qualifications and skills to fit into the system.”
Dr Ahmed expressed a growing frustration with the inability of politicians to address this issue. “It’s all been meeting and meeting and meeting. For the last four or five years, we’ve been meeting.”
Refugees were getting up to six months’ training, then returning to unemployment, he said. “Families are not getting anywhere. Their kids are also feeling that frustration.”
The issue is not new. In 2007, the then immigration minister Kevin Andrews created a storm when he admitted the Howard government had squeezed the African component of the refugee program because “some groups don’t seem to be settling and adjusting into the Australian way of life”.
A third brawl within Melbourne’s Sudanese community in as many days has left three people hospitalised.
Police are investigating whether the incidents are linked to a machete attack on a man at a Clayton party on Sunday night following the Miss South Sudan Australia beauty pageant.
Officers were called to a brawl between a group of Sudanese men in a carpark at a hotel in Melbourne’s east about 10.30pm (AEST) on Tuesday.
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The group scattered as police arrived at the East Ringwood car park, with three men requiring hospital treatment for cuts and bruises.
The latest stoush follows a brawl of up to 100 Sudanese men in Braybrook early on Tuesday.
Police were pelted with bottles when they arrived on the scene. One officer was hit on the face with a bottle and another punched in the back of the head.
Both were treated by paramedics at the scene and were able to continue their shift.
Victoria Police Deputy Commissioner Ken Jones says difficulties among migrant groups as they adapt to the laws of their new country are common.
“This isn’t about racism, this is about groups getting out of hand over a pageant and over a party, confronting our cops and it turned into a very, very ugly and nasty incident and the law will be enforced,” he told Fairfax Radio on Wednesday.
Sir Ken said his own experience in the UK had indicated groups from war-ravaged countries in the Horn of Africa often took a long time to settle into their new communities.
“It has to be acknowledged you’re not comparing like with like and people need a lot of help to integrate and assimilate.”
African Think Tank chair Berhan Ahmed says there are not enough employment opportunities for Sudanese youths in Australia, causing them to turn to high rates of alcohol consumption.
“The problem is not a police problem, the problem is opportunities,” Dr Ahmed told AAP.
“But by any standard what happened is not acceptable and should not happen in the future.”
Premier Ted Baillieu said he had spoken with the African Think Tank leaders and he hoped to talk with them again.
“We do have to recognise there are some problems in some communities and they do have to be addressed,” Mr Baillieu told reporters.
“Any community that is arriving here faces challenges.
“What we need is young, local leaders in all these communities stepping up to the plate.”