UN working group backs South Sudanese Australian mothers' concerns about treatment of youth – ABC News

UN working group backs South Sudanese Australian mothers' concerns about treatment of youth
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In Melbourne's outer-west, African Australian mothers have for years been crying out for help.
They say their children have been singled out and vilified, leading to too many ending up incarcerated, many with mental health issues.
Now their concerns have been backed by a United Nations working group researching the experiences of people of African descent in communities around the world.
After a visit to Australia earlier this month, the group found the proportion of people from South Sudanese backgrounds in prison and indefinite detention here is not replicated in any other country they have resettled.
Working group member Dominique Day, a human rights lawyer from the United States, said she had never seen anything like the situation in Australia.
"I personally have never come into a space and heard so much, so immediately about suicide, depression and serious mental health issues," Ms Day told the ABC.
When the working group put these issues to the federal Health Department, she said they were unaware of the magnitude of the issue.
"We're not talking necessarily about people who were necessarily prone to serious mental health [problems]," she said.
But rather people who have had a trajectory of feeling disaffected and isolated leading to identity crises and even suicidal ideation.
The preliminary report says Australian authorities should consider their role in the "poor outcomes" that South Sudanese communities are facing.
And it suggests a more community-based approach to support young people from new migrant communities as a preventive tool.
Depression and mental illness are having fatal consequences in Melbourne's South Sudanese community – and leaders say the issue is worsening.
"If not, the international community should consider country-specific warnings to the refugees in advance of resettlement," the report says.
Ms Day said the group had been told that people of African descent, and particularly South Sudanese, were over-represented in juvenile detention and prison. 
"You have section 501 of the Migration Act, which allows the government to convert people at the end of their prison sentences into this indefinite detention in immigration custody," she said.
"And this was also a space that was disproportionately black and South Sudanese."
A spokesperson from Australian Border Force told the ABC in a statement that visa cancellation powers helped protect the community.
"The Australian government will continue to act decisively to protect the community from the risk of harm posed by individuals who choose to engage in criminal activity or other behaviour of concern," the spokesperson said.
They added Australia had non-discriminatory visa and migration programs, and the conditions surrounding cancellations applied to all regardless of gender, race or cultural background.
"The Department of Home Affairs' Community Liaison Officer (CLO) network plays an essential role in building and maintaining relationships with a wide range of CALD communities around the country," the spokesperson said.
Sudanese Mothers Coalition in Victoria president Monica Majak said she may not have resettled with her son in Australia if she had been warned about how they would be treated. 
Ms Majak said she had fled war for the promise of a better life which had not materialised.
"We came here for the future of our children. We came here for this generation that has been destroyed," she told the ABC.
"Their future has been ruined. They don't have any future at all because they push our children away from us."
Ms Majak, who was among the Sudanese community members consulted by the UN working group, said young South Sudanese Australians were being unfairly targeted by law enforcement and the media.
"I'm an Australian citizen, and these kids who came who have all these issues, they are Australian, they see themselves as Australian," she said.
"But they've been singled out by calling them gangs, by calling them the thief."
Melbourne pharmacist and refugee Yong Deng moves back to regional Victoria to study to become a doctor.
Ms Majak said her own son was being indefinitely detained in Yongah Hill Immigration Detention Centre.
He had been struggling with this mental health before attempting to take his own life in 2017 by dousing himself in petrol and attempting to set himself on fire.
He was arrested, and on the day he was due to be released on bail was instead put in immigration detention.
"I was waiting in the court [thinking] my son is going to come [but] my son did not come," she said.
"Immediately they cancelled his visa and took him into detention.
"They just took him without information. They did not inform me. They did not tell me where they took him."
Ms Majak, whose son is still in detention, sometimes questions whether she should have sought refuge in Australia at all and if war may have been safer.
"We feel like when we were in the war, we did not face all these things," she said. 
"We run here to protect our children, but if there is no solution, they can take us back.
"Because there's no point for me to be alive in this country without my children."
The UN working group found there was a lack of awareness in government bodies about the youth mental health crisis impacting African communities in Australia.
"We met with many organisations, many different sorts of organs of governments, and this wasn't on anybody's radar," Ms Day said.
"It wasn't on the radar of the resettlement folks. It wasn't on the radar of the Department of Health. It wasn't even on the radar, necessarily of the coroner. 
"We were told that national origin data is not necessarily captured in suicide data."
Ms Day said the lack of government insight into the issues facing African communities was troubling. 
"We saw adolescents saying, 'I'm tired of going to funerals of my South Sudanese friends'," she said.
"We didn't see any recognition [from the authorities] that the resettlement and the welcome that refugees were receiving was so inadequate, that there were children or adolescents committing suicide."
A spokesperson for the Federal Department of Health said in a statement there were "opportunities to improve collection of ethnicity data".
Earlier this year, Multicultural Affairs Minister Andrew Giles made a commitment to collect better ethnicity data ahead of the next census in 2026.
But the National Suicide and Self-harm Monitoring System still does not include data about ethnicity or country of birth.
"However, culturally and linguistically diverse communities have been identified as a priority population group under the 2022 National Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Agreement and for data development work as part of the System," a Department of Health spokesperson said.
Melbourne clinical psychologist Nasalifya Namwinga works predominantly with patients from African backgrounds.
The study prompts calls for a national youth mental health strategy with localised approaches targeting those most in need.
Ms Namwinga is concerned about the lack of attention to the mental health problems in Victoria's African communities and the lack of data collection. 
"There's a clear correlation between the [report's] findings about the lack of resources and being hyper visible, experiencing discrimination and racism and poor mental health outcomes," she said.
"You see things like increased risk of suicidality, self-harming behaviours, which are not accounted for. 
"They're not talked about … if we're not counted, we don't exist."
Ms Namwinga said mainstream services were not keeping up with the needs of culturally diverse patients.
She had seen patients decide to pay out of pocket rather than getting more affordable, but less culturally responsive, care. 
"We've got a therapists directory of other diverse therapists or African therapists, and they all have a waitlist," she said. 
"You struggle to find an African therapist that doesn't have a waitlist at the moment, because people are tired of accessing services that don't cater to them. So they will wait."
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