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Jailed ‘Niko’ from Sunshine via Africa, who ‘fell in with the wrong crowd’

Jesuit mentor Michael Taouk visits “Niko”. Photo: Joe Armao “I am a reminder that the outside world exists”: Jesuit mentor Michael Taouk with “Niko”. Photo: Joe Armao
Nanjing Night Net

“Niko” – not his real name – arrived in Australia when he was nine. He was born in Sudan in a refugee camp, but he is Ethiopian. First he lived in Hobart, then Sunshine in the western suburbs of Melbourne.

This is where the trouble began. In his words he fell in with the wrong crowd in year nine, then left school half-way through year 10, aged 16, to be a criminal in cahoots with three other teenagers: “One Pacific Islander, two caucasian Aussies,” he says, “not a gang, nothing like that.”

Melbourne, and Sunshine, seemed to offer trouble right up to him. “More attractions, the wrong paths, bad influences. More pressures.”

Petty crime in the western suburbs escalated to the point where Niko got himself a gun and was charged with armed robbery for holding up a shop. He’s in jail in Fulham near Sale, aged 20. He has a canvas of an Ethiopian flag on his cell wall, next to the TV guide and his study schedule. His earliest prospect for release is next winter sometime.

On the face of it, he is rehabilitated. He will sit VCE exams this month. He is sorry and takes responsibility and is committed to his family, split between Sunshine and Adelaide.

His mother, he says, is “the greatest person in the world, she is everything, everything.” Niko lost his father to liver cancer after the family had settled in Melbourne.

African youth in Victoria keep going to jail, and in similar circumstances to Niko: convicted as a child, juvenile detention, then adult prison. According to Anthony Kelly, the chief executive officer of the Flemington and Kensington Community Legal Centre, Africans and particularly Sudanese people are as “over-represented” in prisons as Aboriginal Australians.

It would be naive to think they are all unfairly there. Police, the justice system and welfare agencies all recognise that crime rates among young Africans are rising. And there is, of course, Apex – a supposedly lawless army of African kids from Dandenong who are believed or held responsible for a plague of carjackings, home invasions and assaults.

The issue – and the differences of opinion – are about how to deal with such people.

Niko has read about Apex in the newspapers that come into Fulham jail. In his view “the authorities are wasting their money on these little kids. They are not organised at all but the authorities make it sound like organised crime.”

Anthony Kelly says that because of the politically-driven “moral panic” around the Apex gang, even Sudanese youth workers get targeted by police for random checks.

While the spectre of racial profiling is improving after better training at the police academy, he says, the issue of “police-initiated charges” against young Africans is still common. This is where police approach someone who is doing nothing wrong but who then ends up doing something wrong (like resisting arrest) purely because they were approached.

“People are stopped because of their perceived ethnicity and their visibility and this is one of the patterns of discrimination that push them towards disengagement.”

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