Australian police brush up on Sudanese refugees

News Stories, 23 August 2007

© Star News Group
Acting Inspector Ian Gillespie (left) and Senior Constable Joey Herrech with two members of the Sudanese refugee community in Greater Dandenong, Melbourne. Photo courtesy of and

CANBERRA, Australia, August 23 (UNHCR) A desire to understand more about the Sudanese refugees on his beat sparked the trip of a lifetime for Australian policeman Joey Herrech, who is using the experience to educate others.

Earlier this year, Senior Constable Herrech and Acting Inspector Ian Gillespie spent three weeks in South Sudan to try and learn more about the background and culture of young Sudanese refugees in a suburb of Melbourne, where the two officers work for the Victoria [State] Police.

More than 2,500 Sudanese people have been resettled in Greater Dandenong since 2001 and it has one of the largest Sudanese populations in Australia. The trip to Sudan was part of Victoria Police's drive to move away from a reactive approach to policing and better understand the members of this new and emerging community.

While featuring low in crime statistics, the tall Sudanese youth have attracted considerable local media attention with their habit of gathering in large numbers. This has raised fears about the emergence of Sudanese gangs. Meanwhile, the refugees' deep-rooted fears about men in uniform have hampered police communication efforts and liaison programmes.

Constable Herrech, a multicultural liaison officer reached by phone in Melbourne, said trust needed to be built. "As soon as they see the uniform, a whole bunch of memories come flooding back of trauma and torture they have suffered at home," he said, referring to abuses during the civil war that ended in 2005. "There was just an unwillingness to communicate with us on any level," he added.

The trip to South Sudan in April gave Herrech a much greater understanding about the refugees and their concerns. The constable and his colleagues are now working to combat the refugees' fear of the police through a friendly, non-confrontational approach.

"We try to use a lot of humour and show we aren't a paramilitary organization, that we're a free service and we're willing to help you," he said.

Herrech is also using his new insights to deliver cross-cultural training packages for colleagues in the police force, the departments of justice and correctional services, and the magistrates' courts.

"What I try to highlight is that you really need to open your mind and push the reset button," he said. "We need to understand that the culture and environment they come from is different and difficult."

Seeing photographs from South Sudan and first-hand accounts of conditions there from one of their colleagues, seems to be making a difference for other members of the Victoria Police.

"A lot of the members have changed their attitude and their approach, and it's had a profound effect. They now try to build rapport with the individuals and then the person is less likely to offend, or reoffend, in the future because they understand the police are just there to do a job," Herrech noted.

"Regardless of cultural understanding, there are laws that have to be followed and the police have to do a job. However, the way the police officer enforces the law is important, in your demeanour and your personality when you're approaching people," he added.

The impact of the training can be as simple as the police checking their assumptions and working with the community, rather than, for example, just moving on a group of young people just because they are out together in a large group that might look intimidating to outsiders.

Herrech understands these fears when he was in South Sudan he was struck and intimidated at seeing large groups of young males grouped together. But then he realized that this was normal social behaviour for the Sudanese.

"They were playing cards, socializing, laughing and carrying on, and I thought, 'How does this differ from an Australian born group of kids in Melbourne,'" he said, adding: "Of course, it doesn't."

Now he's trying to enlighten colleagues and the general public. "Our job [as police] is to widen the understanding a bit further and go back to the community and say well, actually, it is normal for young people to group together. Don't just assume they're there for a negative reason," he said.

By Ariane Rummery in Canberra, Australia




UNHCR country pages


An alternative for those who cannot go home, made possible by UNHCR and governments.

UNHCR Resettlement Handbook and Country Chapters

July 2011 edition of the UNHCR Resettlement Handbook.

Resettlement from Tunisia's Choucha Camp

Between February and October 2011, more than 1 million people crossed into Tunisia to escape conflict in Libya. Most were migrant workers who made their way home or were repatriated, but the arrivals included refugees and asylum-seekers who could not return home or live freely in Tunisia.

UNHCR has been trying to find solutions for these people, most of whom ended up in the Choucha Transit Camp near Tunisia's border with Libya. Resettlement remains the most viable solution for those registered as refugees at Choucha before a cut-off date of December 1, 2011.

As of late April, 14 countries had accepted 2,349 refugees for resettlement, 1,331 of whom have since left Tunisia. The rest are expected to leave Choucha later this year. Most have gone to Australia, Norway and the United States. But there are a more than 2,600 refugees and almost 140 asylum-seekers still in the camp. UNHCR continues to advocate with resettlement countries to find solutions for them.

Resettlement from Tunisia's Choucha Camp

A Place to Call Home(Part 2): 1996 - 2003

This gallery highlights the history of UNHCR's efforts to help some of the world's most disenfranchised people to find a place called home, whether through repatriation, resettlement or local integration.

After decades of hospitality after World War II, as the global political climate changed and the number of people cared for by UNHCR swelled from around one million in 1951, to more than 27 million people in the mid-1990s, the welcome mat for refugees was largely withdrawn.

Voluntary repatriation has become both the preferred and only practical solution for today's refugees. In fact, the great majority of them choose to return to their former homes, though for those who cannot do so for various reasons, resettlement in countries like the United States and Australia, and local integration within regions where they first sought asylum, remain important options.

This gallery sees Rwandans returning home after the 1994 genocide; returnees to Kosovo receiving reintegration assistance; Guatemalans obtaining land titles in Mexico; and Afghans flocking home in 2003 after decades in exile.

A Place to Call Home(Part 2): 1996 - 2003

Out of Harm's Way in Romania

Peaceful days and a safe environment is probably more than these Palestinian and Sudanese refugees expected when they were stuck in a desert camp in Iraq. Now they are recovering at a special transit centre in the Romanian city of Timisoara while their applications for resettlement in a third country are processed.

Most people forced to flee their homes are escaping from violence or persecution, but some find themselves still in danger after arriving at their destination. UNHCR uses the centre in Romania to bring such people out of harm's way until they can be resettled.

The Emergency Transit Centre (ETC) in Timisoara was opened in 2008. Another one will be formally opened in Humenné, Slovakia, within the coming weeks. The ETC provides shelter and respite for up to six months, during which time the evacuees can prepare for a new life overseas. They can attend language courses and cultural orientation classes.

Out of Harm's Way in Romania

Iraq: Uprooted and living in a warehousePlay video

Iraq: Uprooted and living in a warehouse

An Iraqi man who turned down resettlement to the U.S. in 2006 tells how it feels now to be a "refugee" in his own country, in limbo, hoping to restart life in another Iraqi city.
Emergency Resettlement – One Family's Journey to a New LifePlay video

Emergency Resettlement – One Family's Journey to a New Life

After their family fled Syria, young brothers Mohamed and Youssef still were not safe. Unable to access medical treatment for serious heart and kidney conditions, they and the rest of their family were accepted for emergency resettlement to Norway.
A new life for refugees from BhutanPlay video

A new life for refugees from Bhutan

They fled to Nepal from Bhutan amid ethnic tensions in the early 1990s. Now, many of the slightly more than 100,000 refugees have been offered the possibility of resettlement to another country.