Vulnerability of Indigenous Population in Australia to Human Trafficking and Exploitation

Indigenous Australians have lived in the continent for 30,000-45,000 years before the European colonisation. Each group developed survival skills, adapted to their habitat, i.e. hunting, fishing, agriculture. Since the 18th-19th century British colonisation, aboriginals have suffered in an inferior position to their European counterparts.

In 1788 the 1st colony was established in Sydney. The consequences for the indigenous population were far from favouring:
• European epidemic diseases immediately spread through the population. Lack of antibodies caused fatalities, fertility and birth rate reductions that lead to 90% reduction of the population. Thankfully, over time, their bodies adapted to the new viruses and also the advances in medicine, complete genocide was avoided.
• Land was claimed by the Europeans without any regard to the locals, who due to dark skin and lack of technological advances, were immediately deemed a lesser race. The aboriginals were forced away, losing their cultural and spiritual connection to their land and practices. The cohesion and well-being of many groups withered under these conditions.
• The newcomers brought along alcohol, tobacco and opium, very easily causing substance abuse to the local population, which unfortunately has become a chronic problem.
• Due to the disruption of their way of life and changes brought in by the colonists, the aboriginals were basically forced into changing their customs and adapting to the western lifestyle; or at least try to.

The abovementioned radical changes left the indigenous communities in a very vulnerable position, making them a very easy target for discrimination, exploitation, as well as indirect human trafficking. In this article we will list the struggles of the indigenous communities with human trafficking and exploitation throughout time.
Since 1850s, the Australian Gold-rush, many workers abandoned their jobs in search of great fortunes. Indigenous men, women and children were hired instead. Working conditions and payments varied greatly. Some industries would not have survived if it weren’t for the tens of thousands of indigenous workers employed between 1880s and 1960s.
Regulations were set down on recruitment and remuneration of the indigenous people. Terms of employment, care of the workers and their families, and payments were policed by assigned Protectors. Award wages were set, that were of course less than those for non-aboriginals, but non-award wages were also legalized.

In some states, wages were paid to the Protectors and deposited to government banks. They were to be paid in full after the worker was released from the care of their employer or state. In many cases unfortunately, payments were not made, as the money were frozen or put in funds for general indigenous welfare. These cases are known as Stolen Wages.

Payments were also made in ratios, as accommodation, food and clothes for the worker and their family. During holidays, some employers took back the clothes that were “payed” throughout the year. The Protectors failed to supervise and impose the regulations, wage supervision was nonexistent and employer permits were not revoked, allowing for an ongoing injustice and exploitation of the indigenous population.

During World War I, army restrictions were loosened as more manpower was needed, so approximately 800 aboriginals were allowed to enlist for their country. Aboriginal soldiers were never recognised though. The Australian War Memorial still refuses to recognise the aboriginal soldiers’ remarkable resistance to the German invasion. In a country littered with Anzac memorials, not one official memorial stands for the thousands of native Australians who fought and fell defending their homeland. After World War II, aboriginal workers were still unfree labourers, payments were still minimal and their movements were severely restricted by regulations and police actions.
Some state government schemes are in force today, to repay Stolen Wages , but were called “insult” and “mean-spirited”. Compensations are small ex-gratia amounts, only workers originally paid in money are eligible to a claim, the application dates were too short for everyone. Most states failed to implement such schemes though. Court cases have been filed against these schemes, claiming breach of fiduciary duties, breach of trust, breach of statutory duties, breach of duty of care, breach of anti-discrimination legislation, and breach of international law. There is a need for a just federal scheme that would ensure compensation not on the basis of jurisdiction, but on the basis of the nature of the claim.

During late 19th and early 20th century, under these notion that aboriginals were a different race, not as evolved as Europeans, and with the fear that the aboriginals were going to die out due to the incredible decline in their population during the first years of colonisation, came the horrific Stolen Generations: light-skinned aboriginal and especially mixed-raced children were removed from their families, in the vast majority by force. The official excuse was child’s welfare. The hidden reasons though were completely different: the aboriginals were a lesser race in the Europeans’ minds, and any mixed-raced children posed a great threat to the delicate balance. Dr Cecil Cook said in 1930s: “Generally by the fifth and invariably by the sixth generation, all native characteristics of the Australian Aborigine are eradicated. The problem of our half-castes will quickly be eliminated by the complete disappearance of the black race, and the swift submergence of their progeny in the white.”

Legislations allowed for children to be forcibly removed from their aboriginal families. Widespread removals were arranged, primarily of mixed-raced children. The children were assigned to Aboriginal Protectors who determined where they lived and/or worked. Some states removed the legal guardianship from aboriginal parents. Other states authorised the removal of the children without having to establish neglect in court, even though some members of the Parliament objected by stating “steal the child away from its parents” and “child being subjected to unpaid labour tantamount to slavery”.

One first-hand account stated: “[In 1935] I was at the post office with my Mum and Auntie [and cousin]. They put us in the police ute and said they were taking us to Broome. They put the mums in there as well. But when we’d gone [about ten miles] they stopped, and threw the mothers out of the car. We jumped on our mothers’ backs, crying, trying not to be left behind. But the policemen pulled us off and threw us back in the car. They pushed the mothers away and drove off, while our mothers were chasing the car, running and crying after us. We were screaming in the back of that car. When we got to Broome they put me and my cousin in the Broome lock-up. We were only ten years old. We were in the lock-up for two days waiting for the boat to Perth.”

In 2000, Phillip Knightley said: “This cannot be over-emphasised — the Australian government literally kidnapped these children from their parents as a matter of policy. White welfare officers, often supported by police, would descend on Aboriginal camps, round up all the children, separate the ones with light-coloured skin, bundle them into trucks and take them away. If their parents protested they were held at bay by police.”

Nowadays, one would think that the ways of the past are just that; of the past. In 2007 the army went into Aboriginal communities to rescue children from supposed abuse by paedophile gangs in unthinkable numbers. Basically a repetition of the Stolen Generations, known this time as The Intervention. In 2006 a “youth worker” in an aboriginal community made a series of lurid allegations. Later exposed as a senior government official who reported directly to the minister, his claims were discredited by the Australian Crime Commission, the police, and child medical specialists. The community of course never received an official apology. More Indigenous children are being wrenched from their homes and communities today than during the worst years of the Stolen Generations. A record 15,000 are presently detained ‘in care’; many are given to white families and will never return to their communities.

Discrimination against aboriginals, exploitation and human trafficking against aboriginals should have been eliminated by now. Unfortunately, that is not the case. As seen with the Stolen Wages compensation schemes, the exploitation is still at large. But it’s not just that; forced evictions are happening around the continent in Aboriginal settlements. Wealthy states claim they cannot support the aboriginal homelands, even though most income comes from exploiting aboriginal lands. Basic services are being denied to aboriginals who later on face dispossessions and evictions at gunpoint. Aboriginal leaders are warning about “a new generation of displaced people” and “cultural genocide”.

PM Tony Abbott’s government cut 534 million AUD from indigenous social programmes, including 160 million AUD from the indigenous health budget and 13.4 million AUD from indigenous legal aid. He also stated there was “nothing but bush” before the white man and “it’s not the job of the taxpayers to subsidise lifestyle choices”. Governments have already withdrawn the national jobs programme from the homelands, ending opportunities for employment, and prohibited investment in infrastructure (housing, generators, sanitation).

This new economical war has caused an undistributed devastation in the aboriginal population. The number of aboriginal people hospitalised for self-harm has leapt, as have suicides among those as young as eleven years old. The indicators show a people impoverished, traumatised and abandoned.

Western Australia, a state renowned for its conspicuous wealth and golf courses, announced they cannot afford the $90 million budget for basic municipal services to 282 homelands. In the Kimberley region, Indigenous homelessness is one of the highest anywhere.

Tammy Solonec of Amnesty International reported in 2011: “First, the government closed the services. It closed the shop, so people could not buy food and essentials. It closed the clinic, so the sick and the elderly had to move, and the school, so families with children had to leave, or face having their children taken away from them. The police station was the last service to close, then eventually the electricity and water were turned off. Finally, the ten residents who resolutely stayed to the end were forcibly evicted [leaving behind] personal possessions. [Then] the bulldozers rolled into Oombulgurri. The WA government has literally dug a hole and in it buried the rubble of people’s homes and personal belongings.”

South Australia offered 15 million AUD as total compensation over five years to 60 remote indigenous communities. A tiny amount that shows the measure of value placed on indigenous lives by white politicians, considering the annual 28 billion AUD budget per annum on armaments and the military.

In Perth, armed police raided an Indigenous homeless camp and drove off mostly elderly women and young mothers with children. The people in the camp described themselves as “refugees … seeking safety in our own country” and called for the help of the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees.

These actions have left the indigenous community in a very vulnerable position, taking its toll on the children as well. In Australian schools, 5% of students are indigenous, amounting to around 163,000. Their overall performance is much worse than those of British descent. These differences exist also in family life and health status. According to the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth, “indigenous young people have much higher rates of homelessness and living in overcrowded households”. They are more likely than their peers of European descent to live in poverty, need extra support both in and out of school, and are six times more likely to be on care and protection.

Aboriginal children, living mostly in rural areas, may not live near health, education, or child services, putting them in danger of rights and needs not being met. Non-governmental boarding schools (though costly) or home-schooling are some options. In Australia there is no legislated ‘right’ to an education or a ‘right’ for students to receive their education within a regular classroom. There is a particular increase in indigenous enrolments in special education settings. These students are less likely to move into higher education or find employment after completing secondary school.

Throughout history it is evident that the Indigenous population of Australia has and still is suffering from racism and discrimination. There is a continuous movement to “get rid of” them. At first it was the colonisation and claim of lands from the “savages”, then the double standard during WWI and WWII, where aboriginals were used as pawns against the enemy, but were still considered the enemy in their own country.

After the wars, it was the fiasco with the Stolen Wages. People worked for scraps, if they got paid at all. The exploitation of the huge indigenous workforce was widespread. Today’s compensation schemes, or lack of them in most states, show nothing has changed.

Then came the Stolen Generations of the past and the Intervention of today. Children forcefully taken from their families under accusations of neglect, abuse, welfare. In many cases, under false pretenses. Basically, children were and are taken away against their will and forced to live a completely different life and be thankful for it. The difference from illegal human trafficking is that these “abductions” were made in the name of the law.
Today a new challenge has arisen for the aboriginal communities. Government aid is being denied, vital services are being cut from settlements and, one way or another, the people are uprooted just for having different traditions. Losing everything for no reason leaves the people feeling traumatised, abandoned, discriminated, abused and searching what they did wrong. Ironically, these are symptoms observed in human trafficking victims. These forced evictions of aboriginals from their homes and their lives, bare more similarities to actual human trafficking than governments want to admit.

The indigenous population is becoming more vulnerable by the day. Children miss out on proper education, healthcare and basic human rights. Having not many options, adults turn to crime or underpaid – and sometimes unregistered – employment. The communities undergo constant mental and physical abuse by their white counterparts, just for existing. Exploitation is not hard to reach them in almost any way plausible, and an abduction or removal of a child, with mostly no prospects for a successful future, can very easily become an actual human trafficking case.
Special thanks to:

Thalia Anthony for providing us her article “INDIGENOUS STOLEN WAGES – Historical exploitation and contemporary injustice”

Additional Sources:

Vulnerable Children in Australia