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RIGHTS-AUSTRALIA: Too Little, Too Late for Lost Generation Aborigines

Stephen de Tarczynski

MELBOURNE, Jun 13 2007 (IPS) - A decade after the release of the landmark ‘Bringing Them Home Report’ on the forced removal of indigenous children from their families – known as the Stolen Generations – the situation for indigenous Australians remains desperate.

National Sorry Day rally in Melbourne. Credit: Stephen de Tarczynski

National Sorry Day rally in Melbourne. Credit: Stephen de Tarczynski

Eugene Lovett grew up on a mission in Victoria state’s south-western districts. He was removed from his family at the age of three, together with a sibling, and placed in an orphanage in Melbourne. “My family remained in contact with us over the years and tried to get us home, but the authorities wouldn’t let us go back to our parents,” Lovett told IPS at a rally in Melbourne on National Sorry Day, held annually on May 26 to commemorate the atrocity.

Lovett says that he still feels bitter. “It’s good to see all the people rally and support the Sorry Day march and what it represents. But for me, really, it’s nothing. Because we’ve already lost our lives. Everything has been taken away from us,” he says.

Released in 1997 the report by the ‘National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families’ which acknowledged that indigenous children were ”forcibly separated from their families and communities since the very first days of the European occupation. But it was unable to give an estimate of how many children were taken away.

The report contained a total of 54 recommendations of which only two, to provide support for people affected by removal practices have been implemented says Lyn Austin, chairperson of Stolen Generations Victoria. “Are they (the federal government) going to wait another ten years to implement the other 52 recommendations?” asks Austin.

In December 1997, the Australian government responded to the Bringing Them Home Report with an AUD 63 million (5.7 million US dollars) package, which included funding for family support, culture and language maintenance, and to establish a national network of family link-up services to assist individuals. A further AUD 54 million (45 million dollars) was pledged between 2002 and 2006.

A study by social researchers Urbis Keys Young, evaluating the government’s programmes was released in May. It found that these programmes – designed to improve the social and emotional wellbeing of Aboriginal Australians – provided services to large numbers of aborigines, with generally high levels of client satisfaction for most of the services offered.

But the study also indicated several limitations, including a lack of focus on the first generation of Stolen Generation members, a lack of national consistency in service delivery, and significant levels of variation in the skills and qualifications of staff implementing some of the programmes.

While the government, through Tony Abbott, federal health minister, welcomed what it regards as “positive outcomes” for indigenous Australians, figures from recent studies highlight the massive gaps in health between the indigenous and non-indigenous populations.

A joint paper from the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation and Oxfam Australia, released in April, shows discrepancies in key health indicators. Life expectancy for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander males is 56 years and 63 for females. This compares with figures of 76.6 (males) and 82 (females) for the non-indigenous population.

The paper also shows that the life expectancies for male indigenous Australians is, on average, more than twelve years less than the indigenous populations in New Zealand, Canada and the U.S. while for women the difference is more than eleven years.

Chronic disease is much more common among Australia’s indigenous population compared to the non-indigenous, with social and economic disadvantage, poor nutrition and lack of access to health care being among the major contributing factors.

The infant mortality rate for indigenous Australians is 14.3 per thousand live births, three times that of non-indigenous infants.

Robbie Thorpe, who led protests for aboriginal rights during the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne – which included a call for “genocide” in Australia to end – regards the removal of indigenous children from their families as just part of the overall ill-treatment suffered by Aborigines.

“There is a criminal act of genocide continuing in this country. Stealing our children is one element of it. Destroying our land, massacring our people, killing us in jail, you name it. We’ve suffered all the crimes they can possibly commit against us,” Thorpe told IPS.

Aboriginal filmmaker and musician, Richard Franklin, whose sister was removed from his family, called for Australians to acknowledge what aborigines have endured. “We, as a nation, need to mature. And to mature, we must visit the past and recognise it for what it really was. We need to plant seeds in the present for future generations, for our children. Our children need to grow up together, black and white,” he says.

Melissa Brickell, chairperson of the Stolen Generations Victoria Sorry Day Committee, says that Prime Minister John Howard – who controversially refuses to apologise, instead expressing “deep and sincere regret” – is not acting in accordance with the general population’s wishes.

“All the people in Australia support the Stolen Generations and the aboriginal community towards justice on this (apology) issue. They walked, they talked, they collaborated, they developed partnerships… Howard just doesn’t get it, he doesn’t get what the people want,” Brickell says.

For Stolen Generations members like Eugene Lovett, an apology from the government and improvements in aboriginal health will not return what was taken away. “The damage has been done,” he says. “We haven’t got our parents here anymore. They had to suffer, it wasn’t only us who suffered.”

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