Please enable javascript to access the full functionality of this site

Migration, crime and terrorism: correct figures but wrong message

By Jacinta Carroll

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton's comments in the past few days on migration policy and terrorism have been the focus of much debate.

Ably assisted by the back and forth baiting and banter of parliamentary question time, the issue has unhelpfully descended into whether or not to blame a particular part of the Australian community – Lebanese-Muslim Australians – for terrorism, and whether previous government refugee and migration policy – notably the Fraser government – is responsible.

The starting point for this issue wasn't terrorism per se but crime in general. Dutton announced to Parliament that the joint standing committee on migration would lead an inquiry into what could be done to prevent children of new immigrants from joining criminal gangs, which would include visa screening processes and possible visa revocation. When pressed in question time to name groups, Dutton stated that 22 of 33 people charged with terrorism offences in Australia were Sunni-Muslim Lebanese-Australians. 

The first thing to note about this is that Dutton's numbers are correct. The second thing to note is that they don't tell us much that is helpful.

Fortunately in Australia to date the numbers of supporters of Islamist extremism and terrorism are very low; so low, in fact, they're categorised as cases and clusters rather than being statistically useful. The figure of 22 represents less than 0.01 per cent of the about 180,000 Australians of Lebanese background, according to the ABS.

That this group is over-represented among terrorism offenders – and supporters – is concerning. But it's not surprising given the global trend of Islamist extremism which has identity politics at its core. Our Muslim community and counterterrorism authorities both know this. 

It's also true that there are increasing, and worrying, links between terrorist groups and organised crime, reflecting trends seen overseas. Terrorists seeking to illegally obtain weapons may look to get them from criminals, as with the gun used to murder Curtis Cheng. 

There also have been cases of prison-based radicalisation in Australia. This new link between criminality and terrorism means corrections authorities will need to rethink how to manage terrorism offenders.

Governments and affected communities – particularly in Sydney and Melbourne – are focusing significant effort and resources on understanding how to counter violent extremism. In addition to policies and community-based programs, much of the initial effort has been focused on research. And the research tells us that vilifying and blaming particular groups inadvertently feeds and reinforces Islamist extremist narratives, which contend that liberal democracies are undermining Islam and that Muslims can't live in Western societies. 

So back to the inquiry. It's true that Asian and Middle-Eastern organised crime and gangs are a significant issue in Sydney and Melbourne in particular – so much so that police have dedicated task groups investigating them – and members of these groups historically include Australians of Vietnamese and Lebanese background.

We know that criminal gangs of all backgrounds are preying on marginalised youth across Australia. And indicators are that at-risk groups include recent arrival communities, among other communities.

The issue of most relevance to this inquiry is Victoria Police's report on the alarming number of Melbourne's South Sudanese youth involved in criminality, and how this might relate to resettlement services.

If there appears to be a link between criminality and the migration experience, it's worth examining to see what might be done to mitigate the risk.

Australia's migration laws already include strong character elements, which includes criminality. So it's appropriate that a review of the nexus between criminality and migration look at screening, while also focussing on the post-migration story. 

This is an issue where the facts and way forward are vitally important. Because without them, identity politics and emotion will lead the way and risk damaging our society. And this is crucially important in countering terrorism.

For a successful liberal democracy and multicultural society such as ours, the issues shouldn't be who to blame, but how to continue to learn lessons from our experience in order to improve.

There is a criminality issue affecting our community. Where this links to migration the parliamentary committee is the appropriate authority to examine what it is and what we might do about it.

This could and should have been just an issue of parliament doing its job. Having created a divisive issue, our representatives on all sides now need to focus on resolving it.

Jacinta Carroll is head of the Counter Terrorism Policy Centre at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
Originally published: The Sydney Morning Herald. 23 November 2016