Utopia and a Third World in the First World
This week’s Q and A program featured Rosalie Kunoth-Monks, who has been an instrumental figure in drawing attention to the federal and Northern Territory Governments policies which are effectively stripping traditional Indigenous communities - ‘homelands’ - of funds.
Aboriginal peoples’ rights to traditional lands, culture, informed consent and adequate housing are being undermined.
Last week, Salil Shetty, the Secretary General of Amnesty International and I had the honour and privilege of spending time with Rosalie and the people of the Utopia Homelands on a fact finding mission. This was the first time I had travelled to Utopia in two years. I was struck by the fact that very little had changed.
Salil was shocked by the state of Utopia and caught off guard that such poverty can exist in one of the world’s wealthiest nations. Seeing his reaction to the conditions in Utopia helped me see this blight on Australia’s human rights record with a renewed sense of urgency.
Homelands are small decentralised communities of Aboriginal families living on their traditional lands, where they are able to observe their customs, maintain their spiritual links, feed themselves, earn a living and raise their children.
Homelands sustain a culture and a people that are one of the oldest, if not the oldest, in the world.
In the Utopia Homelands, an impoverished grouping of Aboriginal communities 260 km north-east of Alice Springs, we met families living in overcrowded dilapidated homes, some little more than a tin shed, without basics such as running water, electricity or working toilets and washing machines.
It’s hard to imagine such poverty can exist in Australia. Yet years of underinvestment by the Government have forced Aboriginal people to choose which of their rights they will forfeit: The right to live on their traditional land or the right to basic and essential services like housing, health and education.
Despite 20 years of research which provides evidence of the benefits of living on traditional homelands, around 500 homeland communities are being left to wither as the Government starves them of essential services.
With the Northern Territory Emergency Response legislation expiring next June, Amnesty International is calling for the Government to commit to the future of traditional Aboriginal homelands, to ensure there is a dedicated plan and budget and to ensure the full and active participation in any policy decisions of those directly affected.
If the Government is serious about ‘closing the gap’, it needs to lift its game and fulfill its international obligations to homelands communities, where there are proven benefits that families are happier, healthier and stronger.
After I met with the Minister for Indigenous Affairs Jenny Macklin in June and again in a constructive meeting with Salil last week, it is clear that we need to see words turned into an action plan for Homelands.
Another blemish on Australia’s record which Salil drew attention to while here, of course, is its treatment of asylum seekers.
The day after Salil and I met in Canberra with Minister Bowen, the bitter-sweet news came that the Australian Parliament would not be voting on the Government’s Migration Act amendments.
I felt a mixture of relief and disappointment – relieved that the attempt to revive the Malaysia deal had failed, disappointment at the fact that the Australian Government had been reluctantly wedged into doing the right thing for refugees.
Asylum seekers are processed onshore in every other western democracy.
But the 800 vulnerable people the Malaysia deal would have directly affected – likely to be refugees fleeing horrific circumstances beyond our imagination – have no voice in this debate. Yet they were the ones facing the threat of being caned, locked in cages and abused at the hands of Malaysian authorities.
With torture, persecution and conflict creating millions of refugees around the world, the number that make it to Australia’s shores is tiny. In fact 80 per cent of the world’s refugees currently live in developing countries.
This year with the unrest in North Africa, tens of thousands of asylum seekers have flooded into Europe – where there’s widespread bemusement at Australia’s shopping around for offshore ‘solutions’ for a small number of asylum seekers.
We don’t need a Malaysia solution or a Nauru solution – we need a human rights solution. A country like Australia should be leading the way on human rights and upholding its international obligations under the UN Refugee Convention and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. How can Australia hope to establish a regional framework to increase protections for refugees in countries like Indonesia and Malaysia if it sets such an appalling example and tries to outsource its responsibilities?
When it comes to onshore processing, asylum seekers in Australian detention centres may not be dying of diseases spread by rat urine as has happened in Malaysian centres, but the long waiting times are clearly taking their toll on asylum seekers’ mental health.
We met a Tamil family from Sri Lanka living under 24-hour guard in Villawood despite being recognised as real refugees. Survivors of the 2009 conflict in which 40,000 Tamil civilians died, the parents had fled the terror with their young children. Now denied a security clearance with no explanation, they remain at Villawood while their children mark yet another birthday and are routinely frisked by security guards when they return from school. Left in limbo, they don’t know if they will be sent to a third country or locked up indefinitely, despite not being charged with any crime.
These cases show the human cost of Australia’s failure to meet its international human rights obligations.
Salil and I finished our fact finding mission at Parliament House in Canberra, seemingly a world away from the Villawood detention centre and the ironically-named Utopia community. The Government, by default, now has a real opportunity to genuinely improve its human rights record on refugees, stop treating vulnerable people as political footballs and ensure our First Peoples enjoy their full human rights.
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