African attacks raise spectre of racism in Australia

Sudanese refugee Ajang Deng was riding his bike home when a group of white men attacked him with a beer bottle in the latest in a spate of racist attacks that could play a role in Australia’s looming election.

The attacks followed a controversial statement by Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews, who last month blamed African refugees for gang violence, saying they had difficulty integrating into Australian society.

Critics say the comment was at best ill-informed, at worst racist, and noted that it came during early campaigning for the country’s general election scheduled for November 24.

It followed a widely publicised video of an attack in a shop in which a Sudanese man died.

Witnesses say the video, widely cited as an example of Sudanese “gang” violence, in fact showed violence by white Australians towards Sudanese.

Deng (17) came to Australia last year under a refugee programme from a camp in Kenya with his half-brother Teng, having fled southern Sudan where his father Gor was killed in the troubled country’s long-running war.

The pair was riding home through a Melbourne suburb on October 9 when a group of four young men attacked them, shouting “You are a black dog” and knocking Ajang Deng off his bike before knocking him unconscious with a beer bottle.

“After that I don’t know what happened,” said Deng.

He woke up seven hours later in hospital with a serious head injury.

Bill Kour, spokesperson for the Sudanese Lost Boys Association of Australia, said the spate of attacks began with Andrews’ comment.

“When I heard that comment by Kevin Andrews I was shocked because I thought that someone like him could not say that,” said Kour.

Two days after the attack on Deng, Kour said he was targeted at a bus stop he had used for five years, where he was well known and accepted despite his race in this predominantly white country.

“Two people just came up me and they are just abusing me,” he said.

“Now everything changed. That incited this hatred towards me and my people.”

A spokesperson for Andrews could not be contacted for comment.

Australia last month reduced its intake of African refugees from 70% of the annual total of 13 000 to 30%, leaving many refugees already in the country unable to bring close family members over for months.

Prime Minister John Howard’s conservative government has in the past played on fears of asylum-seekers effectively at election time, with his 2001 election victory ascribed to a tough stance on a boatload of Afghan and Iraqi refugees.

But analysts say the issue is largely a spent force politically, as most voters who would be alienated by the government’s stance have already been alienated and the impact this year should be no greater than at the last election in 2004.

“I think Howard alienated a certain group of people a while ago. I think those people were just as alienated last time as this time,” said veteran political commentator Malcolm Mackerras.

However, refugee activists are concerned about what official pandering to such views may mean.

It is now several years since Pauline Hanson’s anti-immigration “One Nation” party shocked Australia’s Asian neighbours by picking up parliamentary seats, but Hanson is running again in this election.

In late 2005, racist riots in Sydney’s beachside suburb of Cronulla made worldwide headlines, with the fact that no one died largely ascribed to tough and effective policing at the time.

Human rights activist Marion Le said Andrews’ comments may embolden racist white Australians, who might go further than they would otherwise dare.

“He allows them to feel justified in calling people names or spitting on people in the street,” said Le.

While it was not likely to be a major election issue, Le said it could alienate a small number in the refugee community who have obtained Australian citizenship and can now vote, who would have voted for Howard’s Liberal party.

“I think it will have an effect where there are lots of African immigrants.
[But] a lot of people coming in under a Liberal government will vote Liberal because they feel grateful,” she said. - Sapa-AFP

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