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CWA # 471, 9 May 2021

Australia's indigenous communities
The systemic oppression continues despite three decades of the Royal Commission report

  Avishka Ashok

It is time for the Australian government to re-evaluate the indigenous custodial deaths and ensure the implementation of the recommendations of the 1991 Royal Commission Report

Australians recently took to the streets to protest against the custodial deaths of indigenous citizens. Since March 2021, the country recorded five deaths. The incident triggered the people to bring back the Royal Commission report that probed 99 indigenous men and women who died in custody before 1991. 

The term "indigenous" refers to individuals who lived on the continent before the advent of the British and includes two ethnic communities; the Aboriginals and the Torres Strait islanders. 

Despite the Royal Commission Report's (1991) recommendations, the Australian government has failed to improve the conditions and has intentionally neglected the upliftment of the Aboriginals and Torres Strait islanders. The report gave 399 recommendations to prevent similar custodial deaths and promote the upliftment of the indigenous community. However, over two-thirds of these recommendations were overlooked, and the number of deaths doubled since the report was published. In the last thirty years, there have been 474 indigenous deaths in custody. 

The 474 deaths in 30 years may seem like a meagre figure on a national level. But even if one ignores the "every life matters" narration, this is a big figure when we compare the demography of Australia. According to the 2016 Australian Census, Indigenous Australians comprised 3.3 per cent of the population.  Over 91 per cent of them identified as Aboriginal only, 5 per cent as Torres Strait Islander, and 4 per cent as both. According to these figures, there are about 8,47,223 aboriginals in Australia. 

Reasons behind the detention of indigenous communities and custodial deaths
According to the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics, the rate at which adults belongs to the indigenous communities were imprisoned was ten times higher than the majority community. Australia also has a high rate of Aboriginal youth in custody. Over 58 per cent of the juvenile population in correction centres also hail from similar indigenous communities. However, it is essential to understand that they are often arrested for trivial matters and are punished relentlessly. Many lose their life before even getting a chance to defend their case in court. 

Apart from receiving a fair chance at accessing the justice system, the indigenous community also faces a problem with accessing medical help and humanitarian aid in the country. In most cases where individuals suffered a custodial death, delay or lack of medical help is the primary cause. The 1991 report found that, in comparison to the general population, medical care arrived much later for people from the indigenous community due to institutional racism.

A study conducted by the guardian found that in 54 per cent of cases when aboriginals or Torres Strait Islanders died, they passed away while being held in protective custody or arrested. Thus, it is unidentifiable if the person was guilty of a crime or innocent at the time of death. Lack of medical help is one of the most common reasons for custodial deaths and out of reach for most indigenous people. The help further degrades in women detainees, who are even less likely to receive help than men. The report also found out that in 43 per cent of the cases where lives were lost, the police did not follow the legal procedures and used excessive force.

In the past three decades, the Australian government also exaggerated how the recommendations have been accepted. The delay in bringing changes to the political and social system explain the spike in deaths in the previous years. It has led to the increased imprisonment of the indigenous people. The core issue is that they are being detained and criminalized by a system that refuses to accept them as a part of Australian society. The systemic racism prevents them from being included and being a part of the society, further increasing the gap between the general population and the people belonging to the indigenous communities. 

The way forward for indigenous communities
The responses from the institutions in Australia underlines that there is deep-seated discrimination against the indigenous communities. The state jurisdictions are not bothered by the increasing number of deaths and are not held responsible for failing to follow the legal procedures. When the state should be initiating a commission to probe the extent of execution of the 1991 report's recommendations, it is disappointing to note that the state has failed to execute two-thirds of the recommendations. The failure of execution indicates the level of neglect and discrimination meted out to the indigenous people. Indigenous deaths in custody is a serious issue, not only because Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders die at higher rates than the non-Indigenous prisoners, but primarily because they are unreasonably arrested, remanded, and jailed. It is time for the Australian government to re-evaluate the indigenous custodial deaths and ensure the implementation of the recommendations of the 1991 Royal Commission Report. 


About the author
Avishka Ashok is a Research Assistant at the School of Conflict and Security Studies at the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bangalore. Her research focuses on ethnic conflicts and political issues in East Asia. She also studies gender rights and social conflict in the contemporary world order.
 

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