The WA Government must stop the demolition of an estimated $30 million worth of homes, public buildings and infrastructure in the Oombulgurri community in WA's Kimberley region, said Amnesty International.

The organisation’s public action calling for a stop to the demolitions has attracted over 16,000 supporters since it was launched last Wednesday.

Forced eviction

Amnesty International sent a team to the East Kimberley earlier this month to gather evidence and residents’ testimonies. Based on these testimonies, there is evidence the residents were victims of forced eviction as defined by international law.

“Overwhelmingly, the consistent message from affected residents we met was that they did not give their free, prior and informed consent for the eviction from their homes and closure of their community, and that they wish to return to their homes on their traditional lands,” said Tammy Solonec, Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Manager at Amnesty International Australia.

A 2008 Coronial Inquest highlighted a number of incidents in the town of domestic violence, suicide, child sexual abuse and alcoholism. This resulted in three convictions of individuals from the community.

In 2011 the WA Government closed the community and its essential services, including power and water, saying the small number of residents made the town unviable to run. Oombulgurri has sat empty since then.

The WA Government has since refused requests by the Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation for around 150 residents to return to their homes.

Homelessness, overcrowding

After the eviction, many community members were left homeless and even now some do not have appropriate accommodation or are living in overcrowded housing in the neighbouring town of Wyndham. In addition, Amnesty International was told that many of the children from Oombulgurri are no longer attending school in Wyndham.

The Government plans within weeks to start demolishing the buildings and infrastructure, which would prevent the affected residents, including traditional owners, from being able to live on their Homelands.

Amnesty International has concerns that the areas slated for demolition include Aboriginal sacred sites and burial sites, and has sought confirmation from the WA Government that it has conducted the appropriate heritage surveys under the Aboriginal Heritage Act.

$30 million worth of assets

Amnesty International also has asked the WA Government to explain why it is carrying out these demolitions. The demolitions will cost $680,000 of public money, to demolish an estimated $30 million worth of buildings and infrastructure.

While the WA Government has not yet replied to these questions, in a statement to media Aboriginal Affairs Minister Peter Collier said that most residents had left the community voluntarily. He said demolition was necessary to reduce further vandalism and theft, and to leave the site in a safe condition for future non-residential use by the traditional owners.

“The Government’s statement sharply contradicts with the statements by the residents we met, and with the stated position of the Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation, the Prescribed Body Corporate,” said Tammy Solonec.

“Residents have told us that many people left Oombulgurri because of the failure of the state to provide a safe community. Others left because of the closure of essential services including the school, clinic and office. And others left to follow family members, including children who had been removed.”

“I believe the threat of vandalism is limited because the community is so remote. Most of the houses we saw are still in good condition and many white goods and furniture remain, even though three years have passed.”

Consultation needed

“The WA Government must hold proper consultations with the community members and the Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation before it takes any further action. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have the right to live on their homelands. If the residents wish to return to their homes, we call on the Government to support that by providing adequate housing, community safety, education, health and other essential infrastructure.”

“The problems in Oombulgurri, highlighted by the Coronial Inquest, showed a failure to protect women and children. The State has an important role in protecting people from violence, but forcing people from their Homelands is not the way to do this. Demolishing this community will only further traumatise those people the state should be protecting. ”

“There is no justification under international law for the eviction and demolition of an entire community because of the criminal acts of certain residents.”