Unemployment not the cause of Pacific Islander violence in Logan

Queensland MP Andrew Laming’s inflammatory comments about violence in Logan were insensitive and misdirected. AAP/Lukas Coch

Mobs tearing up Logan. Did any of them do a day’s work today, or was it business as usual and welfare on tap?

That’s how MP Andrew Laming responded to recent violence in Logan between Aboriginal and Pacific Islander groups.

Clearly both groups face discrimination, yet we know comparatively little about Pacific Islanders as a marginalised minority group in Australia. Violence is always a complex issue, but where Pacific Islander youths are involved there are several factors at play that might help us better understand the situation.

It needs to be stressed that those involved in the violence at Logan are a small minority. But incidents such as this do happen. In 2011, a violent confrontation involving young Pacific Islanders broke out at Mount Druitt’s Westfield Shopping Centre.

So what lies behind violence involving Pacific Island youth in places such as Logan and Mount Druitt?

Every young Pacific Islander is different and has different experiences. But there are some observations that might help explain some of the violence.

Employment

Although Laming lamented unemployment, in fact sometimes it is the opposite that’s the problem. First generation Pacific Islanders come to Australia to better themselves, their family here, and their family back home. But they often end up in low-paying or unskilled employment, often involving shift work. In other words, they work very hard for little reward.

This leads to the issue of supervision. Because the first (and sometimes subsequent) generation of parents work so hard, kids often get less parental supervision. Often the supervision they do get is from elder siblings. This means young people can lack strong parental role models in their everyday life.

They also have little choice and free action in everyday life. In Pacific cultures, young people typically don’t speak back to elders. This means many of these youths have very limited scope to express their frustration, and anger builds.

Education

Parents put a very high value on education. Their children are meant to be shy and respect elders. Talking to teachers, let alone questioning them, is difficult. At the same time, when they get home, if they adopt Australian youth ways of interacting with their Pacific Island elders, they are sternly rebuked.

If they don’t succeed at school, they also face heavy stricture from their parents. And changes to immigration laws made many Pacific Islanders ineligible for HECS. Even if they do well in school, they are unlikely to pursue a university degree due to the additional financial pressures this involves. So many feel stuck and unable to break the cycle of unskilled employment and parental expectations.

Pacific Islander youth clashed with Indigenous groups in Logan, Queensland. AAP/Dave Hunt

Finance

Then there is the amount of money sent to relatives in Australia, the Pacific Islands, and other parts of the world. There is significant pressure to fulfil the social responsibilities of sending earning back to their families. A lot of money is also funnelled to churches, as Pacific Islanders are often very religious.

As a result, even if parents are working hard and earning money, their immediate family in Australia may not enjoy the benefits of this. Because so much of one’s earnings need to be distributed elsewhere, working is actually not as financially rewarding to youth as it might appear. It’s almost as though they are at the top tax rate, but they are only earning minimum wage.

Community

Finally, a sense of belonging. As a result of work and education issues, self-esteem problems often arise. Youths look for alternative communities where they can find acceptance, and more freedom of action.

And most of these youths live in outer suburbia, areas of low income, where many ethnic minorities reside. This has the effect of concentrating disadvantaged groups and the difficulties they face.

Many of the issues discussed here are generational problems, which many migrant or ethnic youth face: clashing values, clashing behavioural expectations, limited resources, and unclear or even dubious role models.

These are just a few of the underlying problems that need to be taken into account before judgements about violence are made.

A version of this piece also appears on the National Times.