Ethnicity & Crime in NSW: Politics, Rhetoric & Ethnic Descriptors

15 January 2003, AAC


It has been the position of the Australian Arabic Council for many years that linking criminal activity and ethnicity is based on misinformation and ignorance, and has profound implications for our multicultural society.

The Arabic community has been identified as one of the four most vilified groups in Australia. The forms of vilification the community experiences vary both in nature and degree, from relatively isolated incidents to more subtle and entrenched forms of institutionalized racism.

The recent demonisation we have seen of Lebanese, Muslim and Arabic Australians has effectively sanctioned discrimination against people from an ethnic background and legitimised sensational media reports that encourage prejudice. In particular the AAC is extremely concerned by the rising level of rhetoric linking Arabic culture with criminal activity. Linking criminal activity and ethnicity is based on ignorance and effectively sanctions discrimination against people from an Arabic background, and gives rise to a perception of double standards with regards to ethnic background.

Sensational media reports have also encourage prejudice and succeed in perpetuating false, negative stereotypes and unfounded myths that, in targeting a whole community, carry very real ramifications in terms of racial vilification experienced by members of the Australian Arabic community. Arabic culture is being promoted as ‘the other’ or an enemy. This alienates and marginalises entire communities of law abiding, contributing citizens of Arabic descent.

Youth are being marginalised and the lasting effects of racism and prejudice have now permeated our schools and workplaces with the term ‘wog’ – once used as a term of scorn towards migrants – being replaced by the ethno-specific insult “Arab”. Arab” joins “FOB” (“Fresh Off the Boat”) as the current insult of choice for a vocal minority.

The myriad of increasingly negative connotations attached to the word Arab is closely related to the wholesale vilification of Arab and Muslim communities in Australia. This trend is clearly linked to current local, national and world events and emphasises the need of strong, sustained political and community opposition to the scapegoating and demonising of entire communities.


Ethnic descriptors are the terms used by police and the media that purport to assist in the identification of criminal suspects. It is the position of the AAC that there is a link between the recent rise in racial vilification towards the Arabic community, current tensions in Sydney, the continued usage of ethnic descriptors in NSW, and their public support by political leaders.

The AAC was instrumental in encouraging a review of the categories used by police to describe suspects to the media. As a result national standard guidelines were created, recognising that the term ‘Middle Eastern’ appearance is a redundant description.

Victoria led the way by reducing fourteen categories to four (Aboriginal, Caucasian, Asian, and Other), and excluding ‘Middle Eastern’ appearance as a category. However the NSW Police Service still persist in using this term.

NSW is the only state not to have implemented the national new code on issuing ethnic descriptors. In order to curb the divisive climate and create national consistency, eliminating this crude label would be a timely and responsible measure.


  1. The elimination of this label has nothing to do with political correctness and everything to do with factual correctness as the label is an inaccurate misnomer. How can people from over 20 different countries share one homogenous physical appearance? This geographical term originated from European cartographers. To use it as an ethnic descriptor assumes that people from west Africa to west Asia including Egyptians, Yemenis, Iranians, and Israelis all look the same! On the other hand, who can confidently tell the difference between those of ‘Middle Eastern’ appearance and Greeks, Italians or Maltese?
  2. The description is fundamentally racist. The ‘identifiable’ image of a Middle Eastern person does not exist in reality, but comes from Hollywood, where there has been a history of disparaging stereotypes with no redeeming features, invariably that of a villain.
  3. With the advent of sophisticated full-colour computer generated photofit (identikit) images of the suspect’s face, this should be sufficient objective information. The more contentious and subjective race-based descriptions are therefore redundant and do not serve a constructive purpose.
  4. The impetus for change should be on the need to review the efficiency and accuracy of these descriptions, to narrow down the description to something objective and readily identifiable.
  5. Those who are referred to as suspects of ‘Middle Eastern appearance’ are mostly Australian born Australian citizens. Their ethnicity, over which they can not control, has no relevance to their behaviour, which they can control.
  6. When the suspect is apprehended and convicted, and is proven to have no Middle Eastern connections, there is never any apology or compensation for the maligned community. The damage cannot be reversed, as was the case with Timothy McVeigh in the infamous Oklahoma bombing.
  7. When the crude label is used, it provokes medieval-style ‘witch-hunts’. Those who resemble the stereotype are often treated as guilty by association, through ridicule and mockery in their workplaces and school yards. Innocent citizens are subjected to abuse. Once the label is issued by the police press releases, it gives a green light for the sensationalist sections of the media to generalise the ‘Arab bashing’, as has been well documented by the AAC for ten years.
  8. The use of this label antagonises and alienates the Arabic community. If indeed the suspect is from that same community, this is the exact opposite of what the police need to expedite their investigations. On the contrary, the need the full cooperation of the community. This means avoiding ludicrous labels when pursuing serious crimes.
  9. Ironically, the elimination of the label has not hindered police investigations. In other states such as Victoria where this label has been successfully avoided, there is no evidence that the use of the label has ever aided or expedited police work. Therefore, such fears are ill-conceived and unsubstantiated by the experience over a five year period.


1993 Consultations with the Ethnic Affairs Commissions and Equal Opportunity Commissions from various states which result in the generic descriptions (eg: Middle Eastern, Asian, etc), superseding the specific nationality descriptions (eg: Lebanese, Vietnamese, etc).

1995 The AAC writes to the Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police. The AAC highlighted the fact that such descriptions are inaccurate, subjective, racist, and are especially damaging when the race-based description turns out to be wrong and the suspect is of another racial background. The matter was referred to the National Police Ethnic Advisory Bureau to be pursued on a federal level.

1996 In March 1996, AAC secretary Joseph Wakim addressed the National Police Ethnic Advisory Bureau, regarding the current policy of ‘Police descriptions on appearance categories’. Representatives from each State and Territory undertook to revisit this issue with their respective jurisdictions, including a pro-active consultation process taking place in each jurisdiction, and aimed to include community consultation as well as the aforementioned Commissions. The issue was covered by SBS TV news, which featured film footage of the Russel Street bombing which had taken place exactly ten years prior. That bombing marked the first time that the description of ‘Arab-looking suspect’ was used. The convicted criminals had absolutely no Arabic connections.

In August 1996 the National Police Ethnic Advisory Bureau convened the ‘Descriptions of subjects working party’, in order to develop a response from the Victorian jurisdiction regarding the current use of Police descriptions (eg: ‘Middle Eastern appearance’).

1997 In February 1997, after a long dialogue process, all Australasian Police Commissioners endorsed national guidelines by the National Police Ethnic Advisory Bureau on descriptions of persons issued by police to the media at the Conference of Police Commissioners of Australasia and the South West Pacific Region, held in Hobart. These guidelines recommended four generic categories (Asian, Caucasian, Aboriginal and Other Appearance). Each jurisdiction was expected to reflect the particular and diverse needs and views of the State concerned. To the AAC, this was not flexibility but inconsistency – how can the category of Middle Eastern be rendered ludicrous in Victoria but useful in NSW?

In March 1997 the Commissioners at the Conference resolved to endorse the development of these National Guidelines and in March 1997, the Bureau’s Advisory Panel met in Hobart to table the new guidelines for their final unanimous approval. They then wrote to each Commissioner, asking that the new descriptions be adopted and implemented in all of the respective jurisdictions in Australia.

Another recommendation by the Bureau, also spurred by the AAC, was that ‘the adverse impact of inaccurate racial descriptions on community relations should be addressed as part of cross-cultural awareness training for police’.

In theory, this should have heralded the end of racially stereotypical categories such as Arab-looking or Middle-Eastern looking, and path the way for reliance on more objective data which offends nobody but which enables everybody in the general public to assist the police in their investigations.

1999 In January, AAC members in NSW participated in a community consultation on descriptions of persons issued by police to the media, organised by the Ethnic Affairs Unit of the NSW Police Service. The consultations resulted in a review recommending that seven categories of ethnicity based descriptors (including Mediterranean / Middle Eastern appearance) should replace the fourteen previous categories in NSW. The review also recommends that police ‘always emphasise physical characteristics first and then give information on ethnic appearance if it is relevant, necessary and has been positively identified.’

On 30 January 1999, AAC member Jim Hanna wrote to the NSW Police Services, stating that the AAC did not endorse the new categories: ‘The availability of modern identikit technology allows police to issue accurate visual images which speak for themselves. This renders any racial description obsolete.’ The AAC was concerned at the outcome and the situation was disappointing given the positive precedent set by the Victorian jurisdiction, which has dropped such subjective and meaningless references. Ironically, although the consultations were clearly prompted by the inflammatory and emotive responses to reporting of the ‘Lebanese gangs’ in Sydney in November 1998, the concerns raised by community leaders from Arabic backgrounds at the consultation were not addressed by the summary report of outcomes and recommendations.

2000 On 8 March 2000, a NSW AAC , member Jim Hanna, forwarded a letter to the office of the NSW Commissioner of Police, Mr. Peter Ryan. It articulated the AAC’s concerns over statements made by Ryan on British radio, during a trip to the United Kingdom in late February and early March, 2000, that were then republished and reported in the Australian and New South Wales media. These comments included:

(a) descriptions of Lebanese gangs as “evil gun toting criminals” not afraid to shoot it out with police
(b) statements blaming rival Lebanese gangs for “tit for tat” shootings and other violence in Sydney’s south-west;
(c) statements to the effect that the Lebanese community in New South Wales or generally should accept “ownership” of Lebanese criminals;
(d) statements questioning the willingness of the Lebanese community to help solve the crimes committed by the gangs.

It was the position of the AAC that the statements made by Commissioner Ryan were calculated to incite extreme antipathy towards members of the Lebanese Australian community, damaging relations between members of the Australian community of Lebanese origin and Australians of non-Lebanese background. Similarly, suggestions that the members of criminal gangs operating in Sydney or elsewhere are all of Lebanese origin is as inaccurate as it is irrelevant. The implication in Commissioner Ryan’s statements was that the criminality of the members of these gangs is somehow linked to their ethnic origin, a sentiment that is wholly unfair and unjustified. Commissioner Ryan did not reply to that letter and declined to meet with representatives of the AAC. The AAC concerns were reiterated through media releases and interviews.

In May 2000 the AAC lodged a complaint with the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission starting that the AAC believed Mr Ryan had contravened section 20C of the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 (NSW). Unfortunately, later that year the complaint was rejected because the comments were made in Britain, not Australia.

2001 In March 2001, the AAC again raised concerns regarding the Australian Federal Police Commissioner (Mr Mick Palmer) and his comments on ‘ethnic’ gang violence. The AAC was concerned by statements which singled out the ethnic background of ‘warring’ Lebanese and Asian gang members to explain the increase of violent crimes in Australia involving handguns and knives.

In August 2001 the gang issue flared again with the AAC strongly condemning the reporting of violent crime occurring in the Bankstown area. This focus on ethnicity – legitimised by the media and the police – resulted in Arabic organisations being targeted with hate mail. It was again deeply concerning that Arabic Australians (or those who fit the “Middle Eastern appearance” stereotype) are suffering from racial vilification because of the racial profiling of crime in Sydney.

Also in August the AAC expressed concern about comments by NSW Premier Mr. Bob Carr, and his insistence on the relationship between crime and ethnicity. As AAC chairman Roland Jabbour stated: “Premier Carr’s insistence on a policy of blaming ethnicity for problems that exist in our society is absurd. Premier Carr is effectively giving a carte blanche to the community to discriminate against people from an ethnic background and legitimising sensational media reports that encourage prejudice.

2002 Of course, following 11 September 2001 , and throughout 2002 the AAC has continued to work to eliminate ethnic descriptors. Clearly, the dramatic increase in vilification (20 fold in reports to the AAC office) was in part motivated by recent media reports of ‘Lebanese’ or ‘Middle-Eastern’ gangs. Arabic Australians have reached a stage where they are being asked to defend themselves to colleagues and are being singled out to justify Lebanese and Arabic presence in Australia.

In July 2002, and the trial of the gang rapists, the AAC again condemned attempts to highlight a link between crime & ethnicity. Whilst the AAC had no issue with the discussion of such horrendous crimes, what the AAC did object to was the irrational blame on the Arabic community or culture. The Council stated that “linking criminal activity and ethnicity is based on ignorance and effectively sanctions discrimination against people from an Arabic background.”

It is the position of the AAC that the elimination of this crude label will mark the shift away from perceiving criminality through ‘race tinted’ glasses.

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