Duncan Jackson (whose name was changed for this story) was sent from Fiji to Melbourne to live with his uncle when he was 17. Ultimately, drug dealing in the city led him to a suspended three-year jail sentence.
Shani Ren Williams / JJIE
MELBOURNE, Australia– At 17, Duncan Jackson* was sent from Fiji to Melbourne to live with his “uncle,” a man he had never met. His parents believed the Australian experience promised their eldest son well-being and economic stability.
Within 12 months, Jackson had been fired from three jobs, and was smoking and selling methamphetamine. The drug dealing led to a suspended three-year jail sentence.
Jackson’s Australian experience hurled him into a whirlpool of illegal substances, violence and altercations with the juvenile justice system. How did the promise of hope and prosperity turn into a story of despair?
His experience is not unique. Pacific Island youths throughout Australia face a destructive struggle to adapt to the Australian way of life. Every year thousands depart their homelands for Australia, leaving behind cultural traditions, tight-knit family units and distinctive social responsibilities.
While many prosper, across the country a shockingly large number end up in the Australian juvenile justice system. For example, in Victoria, the state with the second-largest population, Pacific Islanders make up just 0.1 of the population, but 8.5 percent of young people in youth detention centers.
Traditionally, Pacific Island cultures exemplify mutual respect, harmony and discipline. Why, when placed in the Australian context, do some juveniles of Pacific Island origin develop anti-social and unlawful behavior?
Guy Powles, a senior research fellow at Monash University in Melbourne, has practiced law in New Zealand, Australia, Samoa and the Federated States of Micronesia.
“In the Pacific Islands, rigid community structures maintain social cohesion through regulation, guidance and discipline. It is common for Pacific Island youths placed outside of these extended community networks and constraints to develop anti-social behaviors. In Australia, nuclear families are commonly isolated from wider-community surroundings, eroding traditional disciplinary boundaries,” Powles says.
Because of the strong cohesive bonds in Pacific Island communities, public judgment and scrutiny is of paramount concern. Arguably, he says, this dissuades young people from committing prohibited acts.
Joelle Grover, a lawyer for the Australian-based international law firm Minter Ellison, has been the People’s Lawyer – the key public defender role – in the small Pacific Island nations of Kiribati and Tuvalu.
“In the Pacific Islands, everyone knows everything about everybody. There is no anonymity, and maintaining a good reputation is held in high regard. In addition, after a crime is committed, public apology ceremonies and ritualistic compensations are enforced. The offender’s and his/her entire family’s name will be forever shamed in the community,” Grover says.
Powles says that in contrast with this way of life in the Pacific Islands, Australia’s juvenile justice system is very individualistic. “An offender’s family, community and church is never involved in the legal or punishment process,” he says.
At 16, Xavier Mara’s* parents sent him to Australia from Fiji to get a world-class university education. To their dismay, his involvement in drugs and alcohol-fuelled violence resulted in him spending the next two years in and out of a Victorian youth correction center in Parkville, in central Melbourne.
“I came from such a rigid and strict family and village environment. I arrived in Australia with hardly any supervision and felt like I could do anything that I wanted to do with no consequences. Ultimately, that perceived freedom didn’t lead me down the best path, but I felt as if I had been stripped of all discipline and I found it hard to control myself,” Mara says.
Stephen Earl, now working with the Melbourne firm McCluskys Lawyers, has been the Deputy People’s Lawyer in Kiribati and Crown Counsel – a role equivalent to state prosecutor – in Tuvalu.
“In Australia, drugs are available that are inaccessible in the Pacific Islands. Without any education or knowledge concerning the effects and consequences of drug abuse, Pacific Islanders are more likely to gravitate towards consumption and distribution,” Earl says.
Jackson says hip-hop culture plays a role. “A lot of my Pacific Island friends idolize the African-American hip-hop culture. In the Pacific Islands this just means listening to hip-hop music and learning hip-hop dance styles. However, in Australia there are a lot of opportunities for Pacific Island youths to be exposed to the ‘gangster’ side of it … drugs, violent gangs and robbery.”
Mara also makes the point that Fiji has no separate detention for youths, so young offenders go to adult jails, and police brutality is common. Australian detention seems much less scary in comparison.
The Youth Access to Justice in South East Melbourne discussion paper, put together by the Springvale Monash Legal Service, found that cultural issues were a key reason young Pacific Islanders were over-represented in the Australian juvenile system. The report says “cultural ignorance” shown by Australian law enforcement bodies led to an “antagonistic” relationship between Australian law enforcement groups and Pacific Islanders.
“Australian law enforcement services are profoundly unaware of Pacific Island culture. There is a dire need for cross-cultural awareness programs for all stakeholders,” the report says.
It found that 30 percent of negative interactions between police officers and Pacific Islanders lead to charges for public order offences, which include public drunkenness, carrying weapons, trespassing and disorderly behavior.
Powles says that much of the negative interaction between Pacific Islanders and the Australian police force is a result of cultural misunderstanding.
In the Pacific Islands, there is a state of withdrawal among young people called “musu.” Musu is the complete refusal to communicate as a response to feeling offended, attacked or embarrassed.
In Australia, police officers simply see it as rude and uncooperative, leading to conflict and further charges, Powles says.
Cultural misunderstandings are not just a problem between Pacific Islanders and police officers.
“Throughout my research, I have interviewed numerous Legal Aid representatives of Pacific Islanders and all acknowledged that a lack of awareness of Pacific Island culture among Legal Aid representatives contributes significantly to bias and the high level of incarceration rates. This was a huge eye-opener,” Powles says.
The youth access report notes that: “Legal Aid representatives estimated that 35 percent of Pacific Island youth jail sentences could have been avoided or shortened with the correct research and Legal Aid representation.”
Powles argues that these deficiencies mean Australian law enforcement bodies should change and adapt. “The current system is not working and something needs to be done about it,” he says.
Social worker Jioji Ravulo is trying to do something about it.
Ravulo is co-ordinator of Mission Australia’s Youth Offender Support Programs, which aims to support and help teenagers in contact with the criminal justice system. Ravulo’s work has a particular focus on Pacific Islanders. Mission Australia runs 12-week development, education and employment programs for Pacific Island youths who are considered at risk of becoming involved in criminal behavior.
“The program has been very effective. After participating in the program, 70 percent of participants do not reoffend in the short/medium term,” Ravulo says.
“Initiatives like Mission Australia’s are successful and provide a working model. However, there is a significant need to provide such programs in a wider context.”
Ravulo says that the Australian government should provide funding for initiatives that target Pacific Island communities.
“Generally, the initiatives that the Australian government fund are aimed at a general audience in low socio-economic areas. These initiatives are generally ineffective in serving all cultural groups. They need to be more specific, so that culturally appropriate initiatives can begin,” he says.
“I do not fault Australia and its support systems. I think that adequate support is there, however, the support is not being communicated or delivered in a culturally appropriate way.”
Ravulo’s 2011 report The Development of Anti-Social Behaviours in Pacific Island Youth found that 55 percent of Pacific Islanders appear in court without legal representation because they are unaware of legal support services.
“Support programs need to focus on educating Pacific Islanders of Australia’s available support services, especially how to deal with Australian police and courts,” Ravulo says.
“This refers to all minority groups within Australia. In general, there is a mutual lack of understanding between ethnic communities and wider Australia.”
Powles says this is a serious issue that needs attention.
“Going to jail is very symbolic for Pacific Islanders. As morale and respect is highly valued in Pacific Island communities, these ‘naughty children’ are virtually shunned and disowned by their whole community. It is devastating,” he says.
Jackson is still suffering the consequences of his early troubles.
“The decisions that I made when I moved to Australia really disappointed my family and I will never forgive myself for how I made my family feel. It has been nearly five years since I got into the trouble that I did, and until this day I have extremely limited contact with my family as a result of my actions. Sometimes I get really lonely,” he says.
*Not their real names
Shani Williams is a third-year journalism student at Monash University, with a particular interest in politics and international studies. She aspires to work as a political reporter or Asia/Pacific foreign correspondent.
Series Editor: Corinna Hente, editor of Monash University’s journalism website, mojo.