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How Australia is failing its indigenous people

Australia's economy has been growing for 25 years, the country is deemed one of the happiest in the world. But one group is not profiting from this prosperity: the Aboriginal people, among whom self-harm is soaring.

Few tourists venture into the impressive stretches of red earth and shrubbery that cover vast amounts of land in the outback of Australia. It is here, in the heartland of the continent, where a humanitarian crisis is brewing.

The numbers are staggering, with almost a third of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People suffering under severe or very severe psychological problems, a recent government report showed. Indigenous men between the ages of 25 and 29 have the highest suicide rate in the world, with 90.8 suicides for 100,000 inhabitants. And the issue is growing: the last decade has seen a 56 percent rise in hospitalization rates for self-harm.

"There is no denying that it is a crisis," Romlie Mokak, CEO of the Lowitja Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Research, told DW.  Mokak, himself a member of the indigenous group Djugun from the Western Australian region of Kimberley, adds: "This is a living tragedy in our country and it is an indictment."

Reports about a string of suicides in one remote Kimberley town recently shocked the nation, with the number of deaths estimated to have totaled 19 - including a 10-year-old girl - in just three months.

These high rates of suicide and self-harm are considered to be a symptom of the stark challenges facing the indigenous people, who make up about three percent of Australia's population. The problems include: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are less likely to complete high school, have higher rates of drug and alcohol consumption as well as domestic violence, and on average live ten years less than their non-indigenous counterparts.

Australien Aborigines Jugendliche in Uluru (picture-alliance/dpa/D. Peled)

Indigenous people suffer from significantly poorer health and gain less education than non-indigenous Australians

A result of the racist past?

"The answer to why this is happening is complex. The underlying issue is that of collective trauma, inflicted on indigenous people by past racist policies," Sara Hudson, a research scholar at the Center for Independent Studies, told DW. The European settlement of Australia in the late 18th century resulted in a massive uprooting of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Up until the 1970s, indigenous children were taken away from their families and forced to assimilate into white Australian culture.

Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are still unable to live on their land, and struggle to uphold the diverse languages and cultures of hundreds of different groups, or "nations."

"The result is the feeling that our identity has been lost," Mokak says.

"Oftentimes, the children in the communities grow up with little hope of getting a job, with many adults around them having lived on welfare, and experience hopelessness, as well as stigma from the non-indigenous communities," Hudson explained, noting that "it is a cycle of despair."

Australia has been trying to break this cycle for years, with large-scale programs like the Indigenous Health Campaign "Close the Gap." The government has also pumped billions of dollars over the years into indigenous-specific programs, but it's showing little difference. 

One of the main problems is that the government's funding is not need-based, meaning: The communities are not asked what they need, but handed what the state deems necessary.

australische Aborigine (Getty Images/AFP/T. Blackwood)

Especially remote Aboriginal communities are often not asked what they need, leading to misguided funding by the government

Over- and underfunding

This often leads to bizarre situations. For instance, in Roebourne in Western Australia, Hudson found 67 local service providers and over 400 programs during her research for a comprehensive report on indigenous funding - all of them for a mere 1,150 inhabitants.

Likewise, in a remote community in East Arnhem Land, a suicide prevention program was organized, although there had been no incidents of suicides in the community and although young men from the community had been flown out by plane to attend a similar program elsewhere before.

"On the other hand, there are communities like the one in Kimberly that are crying out for programs, and are in dire need of suicide prevention programs," Hudson adds.  

On top of this, there is little accountability when it comes to public expenditures. "The problem is that no one really knows where the money is going," Hudson found. "Less than 10 percent of the total 1,082 indigenous-specific programs were assessed. This leads to unsuccessful programs being funded, or successful ones not getting further financial support."

The lack of coordination between the federal and state governments, as well as the lack of continuity due to a fast change in governments are not helping either. Australia has had four prime ministers over the past six years. 

According to Hudson, "many programs are also what we call band-aid programs. They just cover the wound, but don't heal it." Tackling the cause of the problem, which is a lack of perspective and purpose, as well as identity inside the communities, takes longer and shows slower results.

Höhlenmalerei der australischen Aborigines (picture-alliance/dpa)

Aboriginal art such as this cave painting dates back thousands of years, but is often not recognized as the cultural heritage of the country

Stigma instead of appreciation

Another problem relates to how the indigenous people are perceived in society. "We are seen as a problem, an issue," Mokak points out. The cultural heritage and traditions that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have are not valued or seen as strength like in the case of Maori in neighboring New Zealand, he stressed.

There have been examples of this changing, however. Injalak Arts, a non-profit Aboriginal-owned enterprise in the Northern Territory, is one of many art centers selling and offering tours in indigenous arts. The surplus they make is then invested in the local community.

Private enterprise is another possibility: in Lockhart River, a remote community in the northern most tip of Australia, a public-private partnership with the local council is encouraging private entrepreneurship of indigenous people in the area of parks and gardens maintenance and catering services.

The community has also partnered up with a university, which then flew staff out to Lockhart River to first assess the needs and social issues before offering its educational programs. 

Programs such as these are just a beginning. Mokak says that reconnecting with nature, building up the communities from the grassroots and taking back the identity of the indigenous people is the way forward for a brighter future for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. 

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