The Government of Western Australia plans to flatten the Aboriginal homelands community of Oombulgurri within days.
Amnesty International Australia is calling on the WA Government to stop the demolitions and here we explain why.
Firstly, what are the Oombulgurri homelands?
What is a forced eviction?
The UN defines forced eviction as:
- the involuntary removal of persons from their homes or land, directly or indirectly attributable to the State
- the effective elimination of the possibility of an individual or group living in a particular house, residence or place
- the assisted (in the case of resettlement) or unassisted (without resettlement) movement of evicted persons or groups to other areas.
Oombulgurri is an Aboriginal community in the eastern Kimberley, with a population of 107 at the time of the 2006 census.
In 2011, the men, women and children living at Oombulgurri were evicted from their homes after the government of Western Australia deemed the community "unviable".
Although many refused to leave, WA Government closed the health clinic, school, police station, shop, and shut off the town’s power and water. The last residents from Oombulgurri were relocated to Wyndham, the northernmost town in the Kimberley region.
Oombulgurri’s residents and traditional owners have been fighting to return ever since.
Why didn’t Amnesty act at the time of the evictions?
The community didn’t seek our help at the time of their eviction. However, when we heard that the demolitions were imminent, we asked if we could visit the community and offer our assistance to protect their homes.
During our visit we heard evidence that a forced eviction may have occurred and that people had been denied their rights to free, prior and informed consent with regards to the closure of the community, the forced evictions and the demolition. We responded to the community's request for our urgent support.
There was a spate of suicides, sexual assaults and other violence, and alcoholism in Oombulgurri. Isn’t it better that the WA Government did something to put an end to this toxic environment?
The safety of residents is of paramount importance, but the wholesale eviction of people from their homes is not the answer, and has only caused further trauma.
The problems in Oombulgurri sadly were not unique to that township and these problems are also widespread in non-Indigenous communities.
Action was certainly needed to address the serious social problems in the community, but this should take the form of better community safety, health, employment, and education programs.
The Government must determine better ways to manage community dysfunction, focusing on prevention rather than punishment, such as a Justice Reinvestment Framework.
Where has the WA Government has gone wrong in its plans for Oombulgurri?
Although action was needed to address the serious social problems in the community, it should have taken the form of better community safety, health, employment and education programs.
Instead, the WA Government evicted a whole community from their homes, further traumatising the people the State should be protecting.
Why is the WA Government carrying out these demolitions?
We have asked the WA Government to give its reasons for carrying out the demolitions but they haven’t so far replied to these questions.
We do question why the Government is spending $680,000 to demolish $30 million worth of assets, and preventing our First Peoples from returning to their homes.
Would the demolitions breach international law?
In terms of international obligations, there is evidence of breaches of the International Covenant on Economic and Social Rights, which Australia ratified in 1975.
Also, there have been of breaches of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which Australia gave formal support to in 2009.
What needs to happen now?
The most urgent step is to stop the demolitions.
The WA Government must then work with the affected residents to find a way forward.
The safety of members of the community, particularly women, children and the elderly, needs to be secured and all affected residents must be allowed to contribute to what comes next in a fair and safe way.
The WA Government must also provide appropriate housing, legal representation, compensation and access to counselling for residents.