COULD Melbourne really be more unsafe than African countries?
With the number of home invasions and carjackings doubling in the city in the past year, some parents believe the city is an unsafe place for their children and are sending them to boarding school in Uganda and Kenya to stop them from getting into trouble.
Some South Sudanese refugee teens who have moved to Melbourne have turned to a life of crime and are getting thrown into adult jails for getting on the wrong side of the law.
Martha Atong Deng told ABC’s 7.30 program she lost her daughter Awiel when she was just 13.
“I keep walking in the crowd and look around,” she said.
“If I meet young Sudanese children I ask them if they see Awiel.
“I can’t find her but I keep search, you know?”
Ms Deng said when her daughter turned 13 she stopped listening and swore at her.
The young teen told child protection her mother was hitting her and wouldn’t let her do what she wanted. Ms Deng denies those claims, but says her statements helped Awiel receive “freedom”.
“I never hit her and she can do what she wants when it’s safe to do,” she told ABC.
Ms Deng said Australia’s child protection system was a culture shock. She believes nobody in the Sudanese community knew how parents dealt with teenagers in Australia and many young South Sudanese teens were using the child protection system to be granted freedom from their parents.
Uganda and Kenya were seen by refugees as safer countries for their children, and Akec Mading told ABC she sent her son and daughter to boarding school in Kampala, the capital of Uganda.
She saw teens getting into trouble in Melbourne and didn’t want to see the same happen to her own children.
“There are a lot of African children now in jail. There are a lot of children now in the street, they drink, they do whatever,” Ms Mading said.
Ms Mading’s cousin Rebecca is looking after 10 grandchildren and some of her own children.
She has 11 kids but two got caught up with drugs and as a result, she sent two others to Uganda to attend boarding school.
She said the two who developed drug problems “took freedom”.
Ms Deng worries about her young daughter Awiel and what she is doing on the streets.
“I’m worried maybe she can drink or she can be dealing with drugs or she can be involved with stealing things,” she told the ABC.
“We’ve lost many children in this country.”
Some South Sudanese families fear their children could be caught up in the Apex gang, which was formed in 2012.
The members who founded the gang were part of the South Sudanese community, and many others have joined them over the years.
They have been blamed for many of the city’s carjackings and home invasions, and the gang’s violence became evident at Melbourne’s Moomba Festival in March this year.
Members of the gang went on a violent rampage through Melbourne’s CBD, forcing police to crackdown on the criminal behaviour.
A youth summit was held in Melbourne earlier this year to discuss strategies to tackle the growing problem of Apex crime.
Victoria’s South Sudanese Community chair Kot Monoah told ABC there were many cases where sending young teens to Uganda or Kenya for school had good outcomes for children.
He said more needed to be done to support Sudanese families as many children had been taken from their parents as a result of their complaints to child protection agencies.
He told ABC child protection was a major obstacle for some South Sudanese families, with child protection removing children who were making untrue claims about their parents.
A Victorian Department of Health and Human Services spokesman told ABC in a statement child protection principles were the same for every case and culture was not a risk factor.
“A child is only ever removed from parents in the best interests of the child, and where possible is always placed with kin as a first preference,” the statement said.
Chief executive of the Centre for Multicultural Youth, Carmel Guerra, told news.com.au youth crime was down overall in Victoria, despite the number of carjackings and home invasions.
“We have had a spate of visible burglaries and robberies of late that have been violent in nature that have played to the Victorian community’s anxieties,” she said.
“There are crimes being committed and we know young people are sometimes involved, but the issue tends to be framed predominantly around African youth who are unfairly bearing the brunt of the backlash due to their visibility in the community.”
Crime Statistic Agency figures show youth offender incidents had dropped to 18,801 in 2013-14, from 25,482 in 2009-10.
Ms Guerra said each culture thought it was alone when it came to the struggle with rebellious young people, but said everybody was the same.
“All young people rebel against their family restrictions, no matter if they are from African, Asian, Anglo or any other background,” she said.
“Those who are newly arrived are dealing with the added pressures of settlement during an already tumultuous life stage. For young people of African backgrounds, this is heightened by their visibility in the community.”
Ms Guerra did not believe it was necessary for South Sudanese families to send children to Uganda or Kenya for schooling.
“But of course there are concerns for parents. We understand that some families see no other option. There is no one solution for all, each family is different and will need to assess their situation as such,” she said.
The Centre for Multicultural Youth works with refugee and migrant young people to help them become connected and empowered in their community.
It has early intervention programs to keep young people engaged in community and school and uses sports, arts and recreation to help them build networks.
Ms Guerra said young people were telling the centre the media representation of them, through the Apex gang, was disheartening and they were getting a worse wrap than what they deserved in the community.
“We know there are some young people from African backgrounds who are disengaged and disconnected, but we shouldn’t be assuming the worst of an entire community of people. We should be finding ways to make connections with this group and giving them something positive to ensure they feel connected and part of Australian society,” she said.