Fifteen years ago I stepped off a tiny plane into Aurukun, an extremely remote Aboriginal community in far north Queensland on the western side of the Cape York Peninsula. My poorly chosen black suit was covered in flecks of bright orange earth the moment my feet touched the ground.
Visitors must have the permission of the traditional owners to access the land beyond the residential area of Aurukun. I was there to undertake legal research, interview people and assist in providing an opinion on legal rights for Aurukun Shire Council and the Wik Aboriginal people in the community. The Wik people are said to have been the first Aboriginal people in Australia to have had contact with Europeans, namely the Dutch in the early 1600s.
Today more than 300 residents of the normally 1200 individuals who live in Aurukun have fled the community. This exodus began in early January due to an alleged murder on New Year's Day, and the destruction of properties by fire and riots. Many of the people who have left Aurukun still refuse to return to the community two months later, and are instead camping out in the bush or have retreated to nearby towns or gone further afield to Cairns. There was a resurgence of civil unrest in Aurukun in late February - including rioting, an attempted break-in and further damage to homes and police cars - which has done nothing to encourage people to return. After this most recent incident, dozens of people who had stayed in Aurukun resorted to sleeping in the foyer of the police station for safety.
In my experience, Aurukun is a deeply unsettling and at times dangerous place. Aurukun has been in the news since I worked there due to a range of deeply troubling issues: domestic violence, sexual assault, alcohol abuse, child abuse, riots, destruction of property and, most recently, continued community violence and exodus. I saw all of these social issues playing out when I worked in Aurukun, and I find it extremely saddening that so many years later the situation is seemingly deteriorating rather than improving.
Aurukun is a community imploding on itself. I would lay awake at night listening to a cacophony of sounds in the streets outside my window: screaming, yelling, smashing and rioting. Things were set on fire; people were injured in altercations.
This Aboriginal community is very much struggling with the strangling and suffocating after-effects of white settlement in Australia. There were and still are few opportunities available for the people of Aurukun. The traditional Indigenous way of life was destroyed by white settlement, yet white settlement did not bring this community any viable alternative. Aurukun is therefore not simply illustrative of what happens when there is an employment and opportunity deficit in a small, isolated population, it is a significant study in Indigenous dislocation, governmental apathy and the resultant violent unravelling of a community.
As we were walking through the streets of Aurukun, an acquaintance from the town pointed to a group of trees and said: "Someone hanged themselves in that tree last week. Don't go over there." I was horrified, and inquired as to why. "Living in this place ... depression, desperation." Someone else I talked to told me that their mother was killed because of domestic violence, a continuing and pervasive issue in Aurukun.
I met young people in this extremely isolated community who wanted to do something positive for their future and for their community, but I also saw many young people who were desperate and unable to forge a future for themselves in modern Australia despite being descendants of the original inhabitants of this continent. In a country where we still celebrate Australia Day on the day white settlers entered Sydney Harbour and we are reluctant to say sorry for historical wrongs, there is an inexplicable lack of respect for Indigenous Australians. There is also a lack of responsibility and initiative taken by government in response to the broken social fabric and lost morale in many Indigenous communities like Aurukun.
We should not view the deteriorating situation in Aurukun in isolation, as an issue solely with this particular community. Aurukun is an illustrative microcosm of the Indigenous experience in Australia as a whole, which is a tragedy affecting the entire country.
- Shannon Maree Torrens is an international and human rights lawyer from Sydney. She has previously worked at the United Nations international criminal tribunals and courts for the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Cambodia, and with the International Criminal Court.