When urban criminologist Rebecca Wickes arrived to work at Monash University after living in Brisbane, she noticed the ways that Melbourne felt different from other Australian cities. She was struck by the prominent sign above St Paul’s Cathedral, “Let’s fully welcome refugees”; the moving displays in the Immigration Museum; the vibrancy and diversity on the street.
“Melbourne is a multicultural hub, and it has been for decades,” she says. “It's arguably a sanctuary city. There's a tolerance and willingness here to accept a degree of diversity.”
The city’s long history of immigration means that many inhabitants feel comfortable with strangers in their midst, she says. Melbourne also has the infrastructure – educational programs, translation services and the like – to help ease the way for newly arrived migrants. Then she adds: “I mean, there’s still a lot of problems. It’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination.”
Dr Wickes is an associate professor of criminology at Monash, and the deputy director of its Centre for Social and Population Research. She's halfway through a research project for the Research Institute on Social Cohesion, within the Department of Premier and Cabinet, which is studying Melbourne neighbourhoods and their racial and cultural attitudes towards minority groups.
Last financial year, net overseas migration to Australia was 245,400, with the national population increasing by 1.6 per cent overall. In the same year, Victoria’s population rose by 2.3 per cent, the highest of all the states and territories (the ACT was second with 1.7 per cent). Skilled migrants, overseas students, business migrants and refugees are all choosing Victoria.
Social fabric pressure
The influx has placed pressure on infrastructure and housing prices, but also on the social fabric. In recent weeks, Melbourne has been the target of a media debate over “gangs” of Sudanese youths, with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull describing “growing gang violence and lawlessness in Victoria” as “a failure of the Andrews Government”. In response, the State Government and the police say the fears are exaggerated, and question whether the groups of African youths who commit crimes can even be described as gangs, as the links between the individuals within them are loose and shifting.
Questioned on the ABC's 7.30 about the controversy, Dr Wickes said: “I've just completed a survey of Melbourne residents towards minority groups and I'm quite astounded at how many people who have reported having no contact with the African community feel anger and less warmth towards them compared to other groups … [it’s] a worrisome bias in the broader population, and I think that’s where we should be focusing our attention.”
The study’s particular interest is “social exclusion”, which Dr Wickes defines as “the inability of all citizens to have full participation in civic, social and economic life”. Specifically, the study is examining “whether or not particular neighbourhoods … encourage greater or lesser exclusion in their area”.
“Where we live exposes us to certain social realities,” she explains, “and how we then interpret that and act upon that varies between different people.” One of the questions the study is exploring is whether “certain areas encourage actions that would be more punitive against particular minority groups”.
The researchers mailed out a 100-question survey to a random selection of people in 150 local government areas within “the Melbourne statistical area” and received 2600 responses. “Now we need to match those responses with neighbourhood-level data on crime and poverty using census data, crime data,” Dr Wickes says.
Respondents were asked about community problems in their suburb, how they perceived immigration, whether they had contact with different immigrant groups, or felt anger or warmth towards groups of immigrants, whether they had witnessed hate-based incidents, and their perceptions about crime and violence in their neighbourhood. The survey also asked “if they would remove their kids from schools if there were large numbers of migrant children who started to attend, or would they support politicians who were very punitive about migration policy”.
“We are talking about a small number of people who are a problem. And we have those people in every ethnic racial group.”
Dr Wickes says the case of the Bendigo mosque was an interesting example of how exposure to ethnic groups can affect community attitudes. Although Bendigo has a long history of Chinese migration dating from the gold rush (20 per cent of the city was Chinese in the mid-1800s), it hasn't had as much contact with Muslims. So when a mosque was proposed in 2015, “you had this complete outcry over how this was going to tear this community apart … people were very fearful”, she says. Meanwhile, 120 kilometres down the Midland Highway in Shepparton, an Albanian mosque has been operating since 1960. The town has since assimilated Turkish, Iraqi, Punjabi and Afghani residents, as well as migrants from Sudan, the Congo and the Pacific islands. Shepparton now has four mosques – an Afghani one opened in 2014 without a fuss.
One hope for the Melbourne neighbourhood survey is that it will provide clues as to how to “shift that needle to be a little bit more tolerant and receptive of difference”. Political leadership has a role to play here, she says. The media attention over African “gangs” demonstrates how rhetoric can promote fear and intolerance for short-term political gain. “For the most part, the African community is not a risk to anybody,” Dr Wickes says. “We are talking about a small number of people who are a problem. And we have those people in every ethnic racial group.”
Community education vital
Keeping young African refugees in school “was absolutely critical” to combating the crime rate among African youths, but educating the wider community is important, too. Dr Wickes gives the example of a Somali man who she heard speaking on a panel about social inclusion. He was frustrated at the widely held – and false – assumption that all African communities were alike. He had been in Australia long enough to educate his children successfully to tertiary level, but still they could not find professional work “because they are experiencing difficulty even getting their foot in the door for an interview”.
Asked if any part of Melbourne had not been affected by the immigration boom, Dr Wickes says the data is not yet in, but generally speaking, affluent areas “tend not to diversify very much, because people can’t get into the housing market”.
The Melbourne story is complicated because gentrified and affluent suburbs – South Melbourne, Fitzroy, Carlton, Richmond – are also punctuated by Housing Commission towers. In the inner city, different classes and different races live side by side.
She describes visiting Fitzroy and seeing “a variety of kids running up and down the street”, hipsters visiting cafes and eating “expensive Sunday brunches” and wondering whether the different communities were simply “co-existing”, rather than integrating. “A researcher in the social sciences who lives in Collingwood wants to do a research project about that … And I thought it was a really brilliant question.”
Rebecca Wickes heads the Focus Program, a research program at the Monash University School of Social Sciences. It examines cultural diversity, social issues and social inclusion. It also looks at existing policies and at future policies that will benefit the whole community.