May 3, 2015

The Forced Closure of Remote Indigenous Communities: Another Racist Policy

The forced closure of remote Aboriginal communities is being touted as a necessary decision by the West Australian Government.

Last year, WA Premier, Colin Barnett announced his plans to close 150 of the 274 remote Aboriginal communities after the Federal Government decided it would no longer foot the bill for municipal and essential services to remote communities.

These services, which include the provision of remote housing in WA, Tasmania and Victoria, are said to cost the Federal Government $1 billion annually. Yet despite being offered an additional $90 million over two years, the WA Government has argued that it will not continue to service these communities as they are no longer economically viable.

Since the time of colonisation, Indigenous Australians have had to deal with the consequences of racism and racist policies. The forced removal of Aboriginal children and the practice of white assimilation may be policies of the past, yet they have caused intergenerational damage to Aboriginal families. The incarceration of an entire generation of Aboriginal men and the continuing tragedy of Aboriginal deaths in custody; higher than average rates of suicide, and the cycle of drug and alcohol dependence all occur as a direct result of continued dispossession and disillusionment.

This forced closure of Indigenous communities is another racist policy that would never be applied to white Australians. This decision harks back to a time of colonial dispossession when many Aboriginal people were uprooted and displaced. Those that survived the massacres were forced to work for white farmers or move to town camps. It wasn't until the 1970's that Aboriginal people were able to return to their 'country' and communities were established.

To force Aboriginal people out of their communities is not only a racist policy, but one that breaches the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a declaration endorsed by Australia in 2009.

In accordance with the declaration, governments and corporations are expected to negotiate with, and obtain consent of Indigenous peoples before taking actions that affect them.

The decision to close these communities breaches a number of rights in this declaration, including the people's right to their land, and the rights of people to participate in decisions that affect their lives.

According to article 8: States shall provide effective mechanisms for the prevention of, and readdress for:
B). Any action which has the aim or effect of dispossessing them from their lands, territories or resources;
C). Any form of forced population transfer;
D). Any form of forced assimilation or integration.

Article 10 states: "Indigenous peoples shall not be forcibly removed from their lands or territories. No relocation shall take place without the free, prior and informed consent of the peoples concerned, and after agreement on fair and just compensation, and where possible, with the option of return".  

Living on community is integral to the identity, health and mental, emotional and spiritual wellbeing of Aboriginal people who have continued to defend their right to live on their land. Irrespective of the small size and remote location of these communities, it remains unconscionable to force people to leave their homes and be once again uprooted from 'country'. And while these are the decisions of the WA Government, they arise from decisions of the Federal Government in their attempt to shift the financial responsibility.

If this is truly an issue of sustainability and viability, then the potential psychosocial costs to Aboriginal people must also be taken into account. Governments have a duty of care to ensure that their actions do not adversely affect the outcomes of all Australian people. More importantly, the Federal Government has a responsibility to uphold the conditions of the United Nations Declaration and to ensure that Indigenous Australians are never again subjected to the sort of racist policies that have underpinned our country's history and ruined so many lives.

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