Justice issues for young migrants and refugees

Research indicates that young people are more likely to come into contact with police and the justice system. For youth from migrant and refugee backgrounds, their pre-migration life experiences and the complexities associated with resettling in a new country amplify the risks of experiencing violence or crime as victims or perpetrators.

Migrant youth face significant disadvantages in understanding the way the law and the justice system operate in Australia. This is partly due to the fact that there are very few ongoing programs that seek to improve the youth’s awareness of our legal system.

The Commission's Legal Education and Awareness Project (LEAP) is an important initiative aiming at filling this gap in South Australia. Over the course of one year, commencing in September 2007, LEAP  provided legal education to over 850 young people, primarily from African backgrounds. While the project was funded to work with African youth,  approximately 20% of the young people participating in the workshops were from other newly arrived migrant communities. LEAP workshops at schools with new arrivals programs provided an excellent opportunity to also engage young people from other cultural groups.

Young people and the law

The project found that many of the youth had very limited awareness of their rights and responsibilities and the role of courts, police and legal services. There was also apprehension towards police and the justice system. This, however, is not uncommon for young people who have experienced war and violence in their countries of origin. On the other hand, the youth were eager to learn. They keenly participated in the workshops and contributed with ideas about the importance of legal education for new migrants.

The project found that there was an overrepresentation of young people from African backgrounds in minor public order offences such as loitering, disorderly behaviour or fare evasion. Research shows that migrant and refugee young people are at risk of falling into criminal activity and contact with police and justice systems. However, the circumstances which may propel young people in this direction are complex. These may include family disconnection, community isolation, discrimination, unemployment, lack of recreational activities, poverty and marginalisation. In addition, accounts by young people appear to indicate that over-representation in certain offences may be the result of escalating conflict with police during street interaction and questioning.

Youth – Police interaction

A significant number of African youth complained that police unfairly targeted them. Most believed this was due particularly to their physical appearance and distrust of African youth in general. Some youth also reported verbal threats, derogative and racist comments and excessive force by police. Newly arrived refugee and migrant youth are often unaware or unable to uphold their rights. In addition, they feel that complaints procedures are difficult to access or that they may be ineffective.

The project trained approximately 80 police officers working in the western suburbs about cultural awareness in the context of building police-community relations. This is an area of interest to SAPOL who have participated in a number of community-based initiatives including sports activities with African youth.

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