Australian Human Rights Commission


Perceptions and misconceptions of African young people

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8.2Perceptions and misconceptions of African young people


    Media reports commonly portray Africa as though it is one country, overlooking the multitude of cultures, national groupings, religions and diversity among African people. In addition, many media images of Africans can are tainted by negativity, especially in regards to alleged criminal activity. In 2007 the reputation of African Australians was significantly tarnished by then Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews’ comments about Sudanese-Australian migrants.

    Young people from Africa comprise one of the largest groups coming to Australia under the Humanitarian Program. In 2005, 64% of humanitarian entrants were under the age of 25 and 31% were aged between 12 and 24. Young people from the Horn of Africa – including Ethiopia, Somalia, Eritrea and Sudan – account for a substantial number of entrants under the program. Indeed, young people from Sudan alone account for half of these young entrants to Victoria. Young people from these regions have generally come from situations of conflict and crisis, including civil wars and extreme poverty.59

    As various sources note, these young people have experienced social integration problems since their arrival in Australia.60 This includes problems of racism and anti-Muslim sentiment in the case of Somalis and Eritreans. They have also been forced to deal with community perceptions around criminality. Concerns have been raised from within their communities about issues of integration, acceptance and cultural harmony.

    Media reports often portray African young people as “unruly, as if they were uncontrollable and looking for a fight” and that they should be dealt with harshly to protect “the best interests of Australian society and culture”.61 Indeed, “strong concern was expressed by the young people about the negative stereotypes perpetuated by the media, which often depict them as gang members and/or a threat to the public. They expressed the belief that unless this changed, they shall continue to be victims.”62

    However, media coverage and analysis of incidents involving African young people are often contradictory. On one hand, they claim that the young people have broken with traditional African culture (commonly stereotyped as being disciplined and reverently respectful of order and authority) and in the process have become lost, angry and violent. On the other hand, they cite the ‘traditional’ African culture of violence to explain certain behaviours or actions.63 There is a sense among African communities that media representations are biased towards a negative viewpoint.64

    A research paper by Clemence Due analysed media coverage following the murder of teenager Liep Gony, who had come to Australia as a refugee from Sudan, and the subsequent restriction on the refugee intake from Africa announced by the former Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews. It supported the argument that mainstream media reports included a negative bias against African arrivals.65

    In November 2009 the Australian Communications and Media Authority found that ATV Melbourne, GTV Melbourne and HSV Melbourne had each breached the Commercial Television Code of Practice 2004, which requires factual material to be presented accurately in news programming.66

    The breaches occurred in segments of Ten News at Five, National Nine News and Channel Seven News, broadcast throughout Victoria on 3 October 2007, about incidents concerning Sudanese refugees in Melbourne’s south-east. The segments included closed circuit television footage of a person being arrested who was not Sudanese.

    In each case, the ACMA found that the licensee’s verbal commentary, the footage broadcast and the omission of clarifying information on such an important element of the news story meant that the CCTV footage of violence attributed to Sudanese gangs was not presented accurately, as viewers would have inferred they were being shown visual evidence of Sudanese gang activity.

    Channel Ten and Channel Nine were also found to have breached the requirement for news to be presented fairly and impartially. The ACMA considered that the segments aired by both broadcasters contained an unfair selection of material, was unfairly juxtaposed and created an unfair presentation, overall, of Sudanese people as being particularly prone to commit violence and crime.


9Language barriers


    The use of subsidised English language interpreters is available to people of all backgrounds based on a ‘reasonable understanding’ of English. However, this bar is placed too high and often someone who has reasonable English conversational skills may not be able to follow a fast-paced or technical conversation with a native English language speaker. A person’s fluency in conversational English does not necessarily mean they can understand technical jargon (such as legal or medical terminology) and their ability to ask questions or clarify points they don’t understand can be hampered by their confidence in dealing with professionals or authority figures.

    Limited English language skills can also impair a person’s ability to communicate those things they don’t understand or to ask for further information where they need clarity.

    Some service providers fail to appreciate these barriers around language or they are not able to devote sufficient time to ensure the client understands what is being said before moving on.67 There needs to be greater understanding and openness among service providers that these barriers to mutual understanding exist. After all, “[a]sking questions, reading documents and signing contracts is very difficult when literacy is low.”68

    The issue of language – or, more specifically, jargon – is pervasive, especially when dealing with structured systems, such as government agencies, or authority figures. These interactions can be intimidating and, as a result, some refugees may be dissuaded from asking questions or requesting clarity.

    Refugees who are assessed as not having ‘functional’ English skills are entitled to 510 hours of English language education. This is provided through the Adult Migrant English Program (AMEP) during their first five years in Australia.69

    The refugee community has, however, raised a number of concerns around the AMEP, including:


  • the length of waiting periods to enter classes

  • the inadequate length of time provided in which to become fluent

  • course levels being ‘too high’ or ‘too low’ – for the students in the class

  • the lack of child care services available for parents taking classes

  • mixed gender classes, which are problematic for members of Muslim communities70.

    There were also complaints about the highly structured format of the classes, which may be indicative of a lack of familiarity with formal modes of education and learning. It also highlights some frustration with the need to put so much effort into learning the language, which is understandable given the usual difficulties of participating in adult education and how much else is going on in a refugee’s life during settlement.

    Refugees who come from an English speaking background, such as those from East Africa, feel that English lessons may not be necessary for them. Many would prefer to transfer these free training hours to another program, such as a TAFE course, to gain employment-related skills.71

    Lack of adequate English language skills is often cited as a major barrier to finding employment. However, it has also been shown that refugees with higher levels of English language skills fare worse on the job market than other groups of migrants.72

    It is clear that English language skills and the provision of English language education are key factors in promoting social inclusion, well-being and development.73 Knowledge of English can strengthen a refugee’s sense of belonging, cultural understanding and socialisation.74

    However, while English language ability is central to participation in employment and education and social integration with the wider Australian community, African languages continue to play an important role for communities. They help preserve strong ethnic, cultural and ethno-linguistic identity, as well maintain strong social and support networks within the refugee communities.75

    A recent study explored attitudes, perceptions and the use of mother tongue among adolescent and young adult secondary school learners from the Sudanese community in regional south-east Queensland. It found the Sudanese community was strongly attached to its mother tongue, Dinka, however English is increasingly used in various public and private domains. The author noted that “African families maintain their multilingual practices in Australia, but children under the age of 14 are rapidly shifting to using English with their parents and their peers. This puts them at risk of losing their mother tongue.”76





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