By Dr Anupam Pokharel
Past President, Nepalese Association of Victoria (NAV)
9 February 2020
Finally, news came out on 7 February that leaders of the Nepalese community in Victoria decided to assist – through proper legal pathways – victims of alleged money transfer, air ticketing and credit card scam by a businessman who is a member of the Nepalese community in Victoria. Altruistic efforts of community leaders now appear to be geared towards assisting the victims to seek legal remedies.
The saga had been bubbling away in the community for several weeks, if not several months. Some of the victims are understood to have been defrauded quite a while ago and had been contacting one after another community leaders for guidance and support.
Occasionally and unofficially, we hear that local police want such community matters to be resolved at the ethnic community level. That would be okay, but for purely culture-related issues. That however should not be the approach for more serious matters that are criminally fraudulent in nature. Domestic violence, physical assaults or any other serious matters that violate Australian law should not be dealt ‘in-house’ by community organisations – it should have been but a matter of common sense.
While it makes sense for elders and community organisations to facilitate resolution of personal or organisational disputes, matters that are complex in nature are generally beyond the investigatory or mediatory capacity of such individuals. This has been very clearly demonstrated by the recent alleged fraudulent events mentioned above.
Here, it is important to cite another instance involving few victims of informal money transfer, commonly known as “Hundi” in Nepali or “Hawala” in Hindi. In that instance too, which involved relatively smaller funds but still totalling into thousands of dollars, community leaders got the allegedly defrauding businessman to commit refunds to several affected individuals. This “presumed success” of the community leaders would have boosted their confidence and given a message out to the community that this was the right way to address such problems.
My observation on addressing community disputes, either on my own or as part of a community leadership group, has helped me raise a number of questions which I discuss below. I would like to assure that this article containing my personal views is not aimed against any individual or groups.
Are we practicing a parallel investigatory and judgement system in complex matters, and delaying justice?
Melbourne Nepalese community is blessed to have numerous community leaders who have tirelessly helped the community in time of need. They have led us for social causes many times and they have provided support to people in need on numerous occasions. However, when it comes to dispute resolution, what we have seen is that our community leaders are more effective in sorting out verbal disputes or social media wars between community leaders or members. This is my observation based on my time at the helm of Nepalese Association Victoria (NAV) as well as a member of the diaspora. However, the fact remains that such community leaders neither have the expertise nor the power to investigate some matters that are brought into their attention. For instance, when I was the NAV president from 2016 to 2018, we were contacted in relation to a sexual assault case. The victim was a young lady of Nepalese background whereas the accused rapist was from a different ethnic background. It was a very clear case where the woman needed encouragement and assistance to report the matter to the police. However, a community leader wanted to interview the accused rapist in order to find out if he ‘raped’ the alleged victim? Fortunately, we did not allow that to happen. We were very clear that it was not our role. We actively assisted the victim to report the matter to the Victoria Police as well as offering continued support after.
The role of community organisations and leaders was, and always is and should be, neither that of an investigator nor a judge. We do not have the expertise nor the legal status to play judge on matters that fall in the wrong side of the law. As community leaders, our role is support and advocacy-related. And this is how things should have been handled in the case of recent and ongoing financial fraud cases in Melbourne involving a Hundi or remittance business.
Trying to get victims and perpetrators to come to some sort of solution is not advocacy. It may in fact be counter-productive that may contribute further to the process of victimisation.
Are we inadvertently increasing confidence of financial (as well as other types of) frauds and encouraging bad behaviour?
Community leaders as discussed earlier have limited authority. The best or the most they can do is just to request the accused to resolve the matter. There have been instances of the accused yielding to the pressure put by community leaders and paying off or agreeing to pay off. At the same time, these problems have been going on for more than a few years.
The magnitude of such matters appears to be getting worse over the years. It is important for community leaders to look at the existing practice.
Is it that the community leaders’ mediatory role and the absence of punitive consequence to the accused financial frauds have led to an increased number of such matters?
Are we cultivating a victim-blaming culture?
Community leaders’ advice to victims along the line “wait for a while, I will try to talk to the accused” and the accused knowing that the community leaders have limited power over them allows the accused to buy time and play with the victims’ helpless situation. In the meantime, victims are going through severe financial hardship or other challenging life situations potentially causing severe stress to them. I have also noticed some community leaders developing a false sense of power when they were able to communicate with the accused about the alleged fraud when the victims had not been able to. In some case, the victims perceive subtle threat of community leaders giving up on them.
I am concerned about a culture of victim-blaming taking root within the Nepalese community when some victims chose to go to the authorities when community leaders believed they could address such matters within their network.
I have seen some social media comments that tend to argue that the Hundi victims are also equally to be blamed because they remitted the money through Hundi despite knowing they are illegal in Nepal. One must keep in mind that the Hundi agents in Australia claim to be legally registered entities and they do not call themselves “Hundi”. So how these Hundi agents deliver money in Nepal is not the responsibility of the victims. Secondly, now that the victims have been defrauded, any attempt at pointing fingers at them with an aim to subvert the discussion is a form of that very same victim-blame process.
Disrepute of the community or outsider mentality?
I strongly disagree with a section in the Nepalese community that believes taking such fraud matters to police or other Australian authorities brings disrepute to the community.
I am of the view that such matters are not about disrepute to the community; I believe they are simply related to the personal reputation of the individual responsible.
It is the responsibility of the person who swindles the community to think about his or her own reputation.
In fact, ‘reputation protective behaviour’ of certain community leaders is throwing the real issue under the carpet. Such tendency also prevents proper awareness and resolution of such matters. Nepalese community, despite being a part of the multicultural fabric of this land of opportunities, we are an integral part of the broader Australian community. We are not a parallel, standalone system. And I do not believe that a member the broader Australian community would hide issues of their community for the sake of “reputation” of their suburb or town.
Believing that we are not merely a “fringe” community should help us shrug off the “reputation of the community” paranoia!
Are we preventing Australian Government authorities to understand our challenges?
If we continue to push aside such matters for the sake of our community’s reputation then how will the government authorities with real power to investigate and act will be aware of such very special type of financial frauds in the Nepalese community? Is the Australian government even aware of these unique problems within the migrant communities? We always see awareness-building materials about various types of financial frauds by mainstream government and non-government entities. As community bodies, in my opinion, it is important to assist the government mechanism to be aware of such issues so that they can come up with ways to protect community members. Such problems are resolved within the framework of the law. Making authorities aware of such matters may also help them to formulate appropriate laws and liaisons with Nepali government if necessary.
Informal money transfer business is well known within migrant community, and I can confidently say that such services are used by a significant portion of Nepalese community in Australia. The operators claim they are legal in Australia, despite they also acknowledge this service may not be legal in Nepal. Almost all the consumers of this service know that this service is risky. These transactions depend on trust. And when the trust is misused, the consequences to the common consumers have been serious.
In the end
It is a great start that the Melbourne Nepalese community leaders have announced this matter will be pursued through legal channels. And that is the way to go. It is also important to start talking about preventing such cases in the future.
As the team of community leaders are now assisting the victims to pursue such matters though the formal legal pathways, further discussion should occur in the community about what would be the best strategies to prevent repetition of such unfortunate events.
I chose to write this article in the English language as I believe it is important for the Australian government authorities to be aware of the unique issues related to migrant communities. I wonder if such issues and practices are prevalent in other migrant communities as well.