No Quick Fix for Australia's Kids Stuck Between Two Worlds
By Tim Costello, Chief Advocate
High protocol rules in the state offices of Juba, South Sudan. Shirt, tie and suit jacket were compulsory for my recent meeting with First Vice President Taban Deng Gai despite the 40 degrees heat.
For official functions, the rules must not be bent. Elsewhere in South Sudan it’s a different matter.
The capital itself is safe enough, but security in most of the rest of the country is so fragile that foreign aid can’t be trucked beyond the city’s outskirts. Desperately-needed supplies must be flown - at great expense - to impoverished, hungry and ill South Sudanese often displaced and fearful in this country still battered by civil war.
In that Juba office, 12,000 km from Melbourne, my conversation with Taban and one of his Adelaide University-educated bureaucrats, turned unexpectedly to a problem that has dominated headlines and nightly news bulletins here in Victoria.
They knew of the grief caused to law-abiding Australians by some African youth, they said. They gave a solution that some Victorians have also offered regularly on talk-back radio.
“Send them back here for a while and we’ll sort them out,” was the message. “They’ll be so grateful about their lives in Australia they’ll never make any trouble in Melbourne again”.
The connections with Australia are unexpectedly strong. Many of the Sudanese ruling elite and military have families and homes here in Australia. Many of the hopes of a future rising above corruption and tribalism are pinned on Australian citizens, who were given a second chance here years ago. They have returned now to South Sudan to serve.
Taban’s fix for the so-called African gang problem seemed simple enough – but the key to a problem as complex as this is rarely so neatly cut.
The families of youth from African backgrounds here in Australia came from another world. The young are stuck between the two. South Sudan won’t have the solution, but equally, we don’t yet seem to either.
Young Australian citizens of African descent can’t simply be returned to their parents’ countries. Most were born in Australia. Their parents’ early memories are of poverty and suffering; the youth are separated by skin colour from most of their school friends. They form groups to belong. Or gangs at worst.
Their mothers, who grew up in traditional South Sudanese communities where men rule the roost, are not well-prepared as disciplinarians. That job was left to fathers. But fathers here, regularly unable to find work, are frequently sapped of purpose.
They become distant from their families or simply leave. Rebuilding a family structure that rallies the strengths of these parents to equip their children in a new country is complicated.
We must intervene early. We see oppositional signs in boys by the time they’re eight. Unaddressed through mentoring or good fathering it becomes defiance. When that’s overlooked, it leads to antisocial behaviour by the teenage years. The gangs grant identity, expression of anger and risk-taking.
Sending members of ‘gangs’ back to South Sudanese violence and tribalism for a stint, is more likely harden them and produce more radicalised, difficult Australians if they return.
Despite its efforts at democratic stability, South Sudan’s woes are profound. It’s regarded as one of the most dangerous countries in the world. Top politicians from warring tribes have attempted to form alliances. But real cooperation is tenuous.
A United Nations report released last week confirms it. The human cost of the civil war, ripping up lives, livelihoods and families there for the past five years, has now reached ‘epic proportions’.
By the end of this year, the number of refugees from the conflict will exceed three million. Three million lives disrupted, uprooted and displaced.
A bigger refugee crisis hasn’t been seen in Africa since the mid-1990s – at the height of the Rwandan genocide. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi says $4 billion is needed to support those forced to flee.
The tribal war and accompanying disaster has uprooted 2.5 million from their own country across neighbouring borders. And about seven million need humanitarian help.
Aid organisations have eased some of the desperation. Last year, World Vision helped 1.2 million in South Sudan with health care, 384,000 with water, sanitation and hygiene, 823,000 with food and livelihood support and 143,000 people with non-food items.
These are statistics. But the human toll is the real tragedy. Children are, predictably, the most vulnerable. They are sick, malnourished, their parents can’t access clean water and their education stalls, if it ever started.
The UN report identifies the problem of good people emptying from South Sudan, when the country instead desperately needs to be attracting them. The violence was “purging South Sudan of the people who should be the greatest resource of a young nation,” Mr Grandi said last week. “They should be building the country, not fleeing it.”
Neither the South Sudan nor Victoria challenges have formulas for instant success. We should double our efforts to solve issues of persecuted and displaced populations. Australia has both the expertise and agencies to sort out the gang problem here. Finding the will to use our talents is what matters now.
Picture: Each day, 100 children who are unaccompanied, separated or at risk reach Uganda after fleeing South Sudan.
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