SYDNEY (Reuters) - Indigenous groups held protests across Australia on Saturday on the first anniversary of the start of a paramilitary style government campaign aimed at countering alcoholism and sexual abuse in remote communities.
The Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER) came into force after a report that found widespread sexual abuse of children and alcoholism in aboriginal communities.
The scheme has split indigenous communities, with some noting that measures under the policy, including alcohol bans and controls on the way individuals can spend welfare payments, have improved life for children.
Critics say that sending in police and soldiers without consultation is discriminatory and demeaning.
“Implementing the intervention, it’s just like an occupation. It is an occupation of our lands by the military, by the police and by the bureaucrats,” Aboriginal activist Vincent Forrester told Reuters Television at protest in central Sydney attended by a few hundred people.
Australia’s 460,000 Aborigines make up about 2 percent of the country’s 21 million population and have consistently higher rates of unemployment, substance abuse and domestic violence as well as a life expectancy 17 years less than other Australians.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologised in February for the historical mistreatment of Aborigines, including a decades-old assimilation policy under which children were forcibly removed from their families.
Despite the NTER, Aboriginal children remained vulnerable to sexual abuse, the author of a report into the problem said on Friday.
“They’re more vulnerable because they’re not in a school situation, they’re not in any disciplined situation. They’re just left in a house,” said Rex Wild, the co-author of the Little Children Are Sacred report which led to the intervention.
The government says progress has been made in getting Aboriginal children into schools and providing basic healthcare.
Indigenous affairs minister Jenny Macklin said in a statement on Friday the government was committed to the plan.
But 100,000 Aborigines still live in squalid housing and many children are still absent from school, figures show, and communities themselves report mixed results.
“The measures have caused an enormous amount of hardship for Aboriginal communities,” said Paddy Gibson, the organiser of the Sydney march.
“People’s income, their basic rights to social security have been taken away on the basis of their race. Income quarantining measures, the seizure of 50 percent of people’s social security payments ... means that people are going hungry.”
In a report from the Mutitjulu community in the shadow of Uluru, or Ayers Rock, The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper asked elder Bob Randall what the policy had brought to his community.
“Lots of Toyotas,” Randall told the paper, referring to the vehicles driven by officials involved in the programme.
But the report also cited the community’s chairwoman, Judy Trigger, as saying that women now had money to spend on food “instead of it going on grog (alcohol) and ganja”.
At a protest in the northeastern state of Queensland, Aboriginal rights groups called for A$1 billion (483 million pounds) to be spent on fixing problems in communities and the repeal of the intervention, Australian Associated Press reported.
Additional reporting by Tessa Dunlop of Reuters Television; Editing by David Fogarty