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Desperation among Australia's indigenous peoples

Kiyo Dörrer
December 4, 2016

Indigenous peoples are still doing poorly in wealthy Australia, as a new government report shows. And suicide and self-harm are becoming more and more prevalent.

Australien Aborigines protestieren gegen häusliche Gewalt vor Parlament in Canberra
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/R. McGuirk

Almost one-third of indigenous Australians suffer serious psychological problems. Instances of self-inflicted wounds have increased by 56 percent over the last 10 to 15 years, arrests by 77 percent. Suicides among male Aboriginal people between the ages of 25 and 29 number 90.8 for every 100,000 residents - the highest rate in the world. Just recently, reports of a wave of some 19 suicides within three months in northern Western Australia shocked the nation; the youngest victim was a 10-year-old girl.

These high suicide and self-mutilation rates are viewed by experts as a symptom of the discrimination that Aboriginal people face: Australia's 520,000 indigenous people, who make up 2.5 percent of the country's total population of 21 million (according to the 2011 census), are far less likely to finish school, have above-average chances of becoming addicted to alcohol or drugs and live an average of 10 years less than the rest of the population.

Aboriginal people protesting in Canberra, with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull watching on
The government listens, but finds few effective remediesImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/R. McGuirk

Tragedy in an otherwise happy country

Domestic violence is also an urgent problem. This led a group of Aboriginal people from Yirrkala in the country's Northern Territory to travel 3,000 kilometers (1,864 miles) south to the capital, Canberra, and perform a dance in front of parliament last week in order to draw attention to the issue. The delegation's leader pointed to the "shocking number of cases of domestic violence" in his community and called for politicians and society to react. Aboriginal women and girls are 34 times more likely to be the victims of domestic violence than other Australian females, said Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who, like other parliamentarians, pledged solidarity with indigenous peoples on the issue.

This is all happening despite the fact that Australia has enjoyed 25 years of economic growth and, according to the United Nations, is the ninth happiest country on earth. "It is a tragedy," said Romlie Mokak, CEO of the Lowitja Institute for Aboriginal Health Research, when speaking with DW. "The reasons for the situation are complex. The fundamental problem is the collective trauma that indigenous people have suffered from the racist policies of the past," says Sara Hudson from the Center for Independent Studies in Sydney.

Many Australian Aboriginal people were driven from their land during the course of Australia's colonization. And the Australian government removed indigenous children from their families in an attempt to forcefully integrate them into white society as late as the 1970s. It wasn't until 2008 that then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologized to the so-called "lost generation."

"That generation and their children suffer from a loss of identity. Moreover, they have little hope of finding employment, especially in remote areas. They grow up among adults, some of whom come from generations of Aboriginal people that lived solely from welfare and are plagued by alcohol and drug abuse problems. Furthermore, they are often stigmatized by the non-indigenous population," says Hudson. "It's a vicious circle."

Ineffective government programs

For years, Australia has attempted to break that circle with initiatives like "Close the Gap." In 2015, more than 30 billion Australian dollars (21 billion euros, $22.37 billion) were pumped into projects for indigenous Australians, yet they seem to have had little success. The reason: Individual communities were not consulted as to their needs, and decisions were made by government officials, most of whom had never visited Aboriginal communities, critics say. 

Young Australian Aboriginals
Young Aboriginal people have few perspectivesImage: picture-alliance/dpa/D. Peled

At times, this has led to truly bizarre situations: Hudson's research on indigenous support programs found that in Roebourne, Western Australia, for instance, there were 67 service providers and 400 different programs in a community of only 1,500 indigenous people. And a suicide-prevention workshop was organized in a remote community in northern Australia, although there had never been a suicide there.

"At the same time, other communities, like in the Kimberley, which desperately needed such programs due to a wave of suicides, were totally ignored," bemoaned Hudson. Further, there was no accountability for spending. Less than 10 percent of the programs that Hudson investigated have ever been evaluated by the government.

 'Pride in our identity'

Programs are one thing: national attitudes are another. "Basically we are looked at as a problem that has to be dealt with," says Mokak, who is a member of the indigenous Djugun people of Western Australia. On the whole, Aboriginal people and their cultural traditions are not viewed as a strength, or something that enriches the nation, unlike with the Maoris in New Zealand.

Aboriginal people with flag in National Reconciliation Week
Pride in identity is a good start, but more is neededImage: Reuters/D. Gray

The indigenous people of New Zealand are well represented in politics and society, and their culture, most famously perhaps the haka war dance, is celebrated as an integral part of the country's identity. But the situation is different for Australia's Aboriginal people: They are much more a minority than the Maoris, and their community is comprised of hundreds of different ethnic groups, not one, as is the case in New Zealand.

There are, however, examples of Australian indigenous culture being seen as something positive - for instance, at the Injalak Art Centre, a nonprofit organization run by Aboriginal people. The center, located the Northern Territory, sells Aboriginal art and offers tours to nearby caves that feature historical rock paintings. The center thus creates and maintains jobs, and profits are invested in the community.

Private business is another option: Partnerships between indigenous entrepreneurs and local communities at Lockhart River in northern Queensland have been a success. Start-ups by Aboriginal people there provide services such as gardening, street cleaning and catering. Activist Mokak sees only one path forward toward a promising future: "We must build our communities from the ground up, with jobs, solidarity and pride in our own identity."