The year did not start well in Sydney's Harris Park. As a 30-year-old man walked to his car in the shopping centre near Parramatta he was stabbed in the stomach and battered to the ground by about 15 young Pacific Islanders.
It was, police said, a random attack and robbery. But it spurred growing concerns that Islander street gangs are extending their violence and crime through the streets of major Australian cities.
From Brisbane and the Gold Coast south to Melbourne and across to Perth, headlines have claimed Pacific Island gangs have become the nation's most dangerous. Fears have grown with the recruiting of young Islanders by established crime groups and outlaw motorcycle clubs, and warnings that loose neighbourhood gangs could grow into serious, organised, crime networks.
But youth workers and experts on street gangs say though there is a problem, it is nowhere near the levels of media hype. Islander community groups worry their children are at risk, and want urgent measures to address family, cultural and social issues before worse does happen.
"It's no use hiding the elephant in the room," prominent Melbourne youth worker and community activist Les Twentyman said. "We need to get these kids connected.
If kids are not happy we'll be bringing up potential urban terrorists."
No one really knows how large or serious the Islander gangs are. There has been little specific research, and statistics are rare or non-existent. New South Wales Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research director, Dr Don Weatherburn said: "I have no knowledge of Polynesian gangs."
But the figures that are available are disturbing. The Bureau of Statistics reports Samoans have the third-highest rate of imprisonment in the nation's jails. Fijians rank eighth.
In Sydney, figures provided to the Pacific Islanders Strengthening, Supporting, Advocating and Mentoring Network showed that in the Mt Druitt police area in 2008, Islanders accounted for 15 per cent of serious juvenile charges, 21 per cent of jailings for assault, and half of all custodial sentences for robbery.
Islander gangs have been identified in areas including Parramatta, Mt Druitt, Granville, Fairfield, Auburn, Liverpool and Punchbowl. In Melbourne their activities are mainly centred around Altona, Werribee, Sunshine and Newport.
Others have been reported by police in Brisbane's south, at Logan and the Gold Coast, and in Perth.
Many have taken their names from Los Angeles street gangs, or use aggressive Islander identifiers: Bloods and Crips, The Bloods, Tongan Mafia, Samoan Assassin Squad, Gee40, Crazy Little Coconuts, Full-Blooded Islanders, CB4 and RSP (Respect Samoan People).
In Melbourne gangs of young Pacific Islander teenagers, including women, are beginning to emerge. One, the Lavs, became prominent in Laverton in the city's southwest.
The crimes attributed the gangs have been serious, including:
* A brawl between about 100 members of rival Islander gangs last year in the crowded Mt Druitt, Sydney, shopping mall using iron bars and baseball bats.
* An attack by five members of the Gee40 gang on Merrylands High School in Sydney in 2008, wielding machete, baseball bats and a samurai sword. Seven students and two teachers were injured.
* Street battles among themselves and with Lebanese and Sudanese rivals in Sydney and Melbourne.
* The bashing last week of a 15-year-old in front of his family, by six Islanders at Sunshine, Melbourne and assaults at train stations.
Police response has been tough, with heavy policing and special task forces set up. In Queensland the Gold Coast City Council moved two years ago to launch special programmes to head off what it feared was the rise of violent Islander gangs.
But strongarm tactics could rebound. Twentyman said young Islanders were not easily intimidated: "Courts don't seem to be a deterrent. They don't give a stuff about the justice system. They're so far on the deficit side they don't see they have any real hope of getting out of it."
University of Tasmania sociologist Professor Rob White, an expert whose research over the past decade has been widely published, has warned Australia needs to learn more, and tread carefully.
"Denial that gang problems exist precludes early intervention efforts," he said in a study for the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth. "Overreaction in the form of excessive police force and publicising of gangs may inadvertently serve to increase a gang's cohesion, facilitate its expansion, and lead to more crime." Research has indicated that as yet the Islander gangs are informal, loose groups with no real criminal structure or direction. Many join to escape abusive homes, rebel against parents, and seek friendship and protection. Most crime is opportunistic, but violence - especially brawls over turf or racism - is endemic.
White's study said research in Perth concluded gang culture was largely one of violence. But a national project he conducted found that in Sydney Samoans carried weapons only reluctantly and were "disdainful" of their wide use on the streets.
Researchers say that to tackle the gangs Australia has to deal with serious, fundamental, social issues. Studies by the Pacific Islanders advocacy and mentoring network found heavy rates of truancy, problems with bullying and petty crime at home, and fear of physical punishment by parents among their children.
Islanders told the network their children suffered identity crises and low self-esteem, felt confused and "bombarded" by Western values, and were becoming alienated from parents and extended family.
Islanders suffered further from lack of education, unemployment - up to 8 per cent in areas where most lived - poor, overcrowded housing, racism, health issues, substance abuse, gangs, family breakdowns, debt and mental illness.
Twentyman said social problems were mounting with the loss of low-skilled jobs, creating a "vacancy of idle youth" at increasing risk of falling into gang culture.
But Islanders were helping themselves. Twentyman said successful touch football competitions had been launched by worried elders in Melbourne and Perth: "They didn't go crying. They said, 'we've got issues with our kids. We want to do something because we don't want them to end up in jail'."
Plans had also been made to draft Melbourne Storm and Rebels stars into a programme this year. But more was needed. Twentyman wants leadership programmes, outreach workers at schools, and more political commitment. "It costs A$140,000 ($181,707) a year to keep a kid in jail," he said. "You can get two youth workers for that."
Polynesian gangs in Australia
* Gangs of young Pacific Islanders are emerging as a violent threat in major cities, marked by turf wars, beatings, stabbings and property crimes.
* Scant work has been done to gauge the extent of the gangs, but statistics show Pacific Islanders are over-represented in courts and prisons.
* Little evidence supports claims the gangs are forging organised structures despite the adoption of American-style names such as the Crips, with most still loose neighbourhood groups.
* But members are being recruited by serious crime groups for work such as drug mules and enforcers, and by outlaw motorcycle clubs such as Sydney's Notorious gang.
* Girl gangs are also starting to appear.
* Special task forces and social programmes have been set up to tackle a problem experts fear could become a major issue if not addressed.
* Much of the growth of gangs lies in factors such as high unemployment and low incomes, truancy, breakdowns in relationships with parents and extended family networks and problems in adjusting to unfamiliar social systems.By Greg Ansley Email Greg