A group of Aboriginal youngsters wanders past a row of cafés in Northbridge, Perth's nightlife district, glancing covetously at the plates of alfresco diners. The street lights cast shadows across their faces. It is curfew time: if they are not home soon, they will be picked up by police under a policy criticised as wrong-headed and racist.
The crackdown has been ordered by Geoff Gallop, the state premier, who says he is alarmed by the sight of unsupervised children - some as young as five - in Northbridge at night. But critics say the curfew targets black youth and raises uneasy echoes of the 1950s, when Aborigines were banned from Perth city centre after 6pm.
The number of young people descending on Northbridge - particularly at weekends - has doubled in the past two years, and most are Aborigines. Local businesses accuse them of stealing food, sniffing solvents and intimidating customers.
The curfew requires children under 13 to be home by dark and sets a 10pm deadline for under-16s. Those who flout it are detained by the police, even if they are not causing trouble. Most are passed to a charity, Mission Australia, which contacts their family or finds them a hostel bed.
Mr Gallop, a Labour politician, insists that he only wants to protect vulnerable children. "It is simply not acceptable to have youngsters on the street unsupervised," he said. "They are in an environment that is a danger to themselves. To do nothing would be a dereliction of our duty."
But opponents dismiss the curfew as a political stunt, pointing out that charities have long worked with police to remove children deemed at risk from Northbridge streets. Similar work is done by the Nyoongar Patrol, an indigenous voluntary organisation. Midge Turnbull, executive officer of the Youth Affairs Council, said: "Curfews only exacerbate young people's feelings of alienation." The Chief Justice of Western Australia, David Malcolm, said the curfew was a "Band-Aid solution". "Instead of merely targeting youth, we should be investing in our youth," he said.
Nearly 300 children have been picked up since the curfew was introduced two months ago, and 85 per cent are Aboriginal, mostly from the local Nyoongar community. Many are girls aged about 14.
Welfare workers say the curfew does not address the reasons why young people are roaming the streets at night. Ann Russell-Brown, state manager of Mission Australia, said: "For many, it's safer to be on the streets than in a house where there's excessive drinking and associated violence."
Mr Gallop has promised long-term solutions for children who have dysfunctional home lives. But so far most have simply been detained.
When five Aboriginal boys crashed a stolen car during a high-speed police chase in Perth, killing a 12-year-old occupant, Mr Gallop blamed the boys' families. He dismissed the idea that juvenile crime was rooted in historic injustices. "Finger-pointing at government agencies, finger-pointing at the past is simply not on when you see the consequences," he said.