Unnecessary Encounters: South Sudanese Refugees' Experiences of Racial Profiling in Melbourne

By Run, Peter | Social Alternatives, July 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

Unnecessary Encounters: South Sudanese Refugees' Experiences of Racial Profiling in Melbourne


Run, Peter, Social Alternatives


In 2011, a report on Lateline on the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) revealed that Victoria police were racially profiling South Sudanese refugees in Melbourne. Subsequent media attention allowed the community to share their experiences of unnecessary and intrusive encounters with the police that mimic the persecution they had fled. This article considers these experiences and places them in the conceptual frame of how racial profiling constitutes a double burden for refugees. It then examines the potential implication of such encounters, and - on the basis of these adverse brushes with the police - challenges the prevailing discourse of citizenship and social inclusion.

Introduction

The refugee experience, according to Barry N. Stein (1981: 320), begins with a threat to everyday life of would-be refugees followed by a decision to flee, exposure to danger, reaching a refugee camp and then resettlement. This trajectory encompasses dispossession and an extended period of vulnerability that makes the acquisition of the refugee status a significant burden. Stein (1981: 322) adds that even after resettlement, refugees have to struggle with acculturation as well as learning to shed survivalist behaviours acquired along the way. Such behaviours include watching out for threats. For Stein the threat can come from a variety of sources. However, since one of the onsets of most refugee experiences according to Article 1(2) of the Refugee Convention specifically points to 'well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, membership of a particular social group or political opinion', one can expect refugees to be highly literate at decoding such threats. However mildly, racial profiling reproduces this fear of being targeted on the basis of race and adds a second layer of vulnerability to an already weakened group. The case of Sudanese refugees in Australia illustrates the impact of this double burden.

Race, religion and other social or political affiliations are 'the root causes of Sudan's civil wars' - to use Douglas Johnson's (2003) book title - that sparked the outflows of refugees soon after independence from Great Britain. The British decision to include South Sudan in an Arab- Muslim dominated independent Sudan without political inclusion triggered this identity-based conflict which culminated in the First Sudanese Civil War between 1955 and 1972 (Johnson 2003). The mutual distrust and inflated identities led to a second and more brutal civil war which broke out in 1983 and lasted until 2005. This war employed the kind of warfare that would later reappear in Darfur - indiscriminate air and ground attacks - on South Sudanese civilians leading to the death of an estimated two million people and displacement of more than four million (UNDP 2012). According to Francis Deng (2001) the government fashioned the war propaganda by accentuating the 'racial and religious dimensions that eventually reached genocidal proportions'. The Sudanese refugees in Australia today are among the four million people who had to flee this genocidal conflict to refugee camps in neighbouring countries before resettling in Australia and other countries.

According to the Australia Bureau of Statistics - which tracks immigration figures by country of birth - almost 20,000 Sudan-born immigrants settled in Australia between the relaxation of the White Australia policy in 1966 and 2011 (Department of Immigration and Citizenship 2011). Most of these 20,000 Sudan-born immigrants came from refugee camps on refugee and humanitarian visas between 2001 and 2006. The statistical category 'Sudan-born' does not include younger Sudanese who were born to Sudanese parents in refugee camps in Ethiopia, Egypt, Uganda, Kenya and indeed, those born in Australia (DIAC 2007:4). All these people would experience racial profiling equally and are therefore considered Sudanese or South Sudanese in this article. Throughout the article, I use media and other reports (primarily those in which experiences and/or policies are articulated) and academic literature to shed light on racial profiling in Australia. …

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