For over a century, several government agencies in various
states in Australia were set up to watch over the interests of the
Aborigines. With legal mandate, thousands of aboriginal children were
forcibly separated from their families through the years and brought
to government and church institutions, and later on to adoptive white
families for some, to be brought up in an environment of white
Australians. It is estimated that one half to two-thirds of the
aboriginal children were taken during their infancy (under 5
The aboriginal families never wanted to let their children be taken away. Many tried in vain to get them back.
In many instances since 1874, the program of forcible removal of aboriginal children was objected to. Warnings were sounded out about the '...threat to family structures and systems; the links... between the removal of young girl children for domestic work, and slavery; ... the lack of responsibility, authority and supervision of those involved in the forcible removal of children; and ... the repressive conditions in which the children were held.'
When an inquiry was made on what happened to these children, stories of abuse (physical and sexual), and deprived identity came up. Even for those who grew up in caring families, their longing to return to their real family tormented them for years. For many of these people and the communities they come from, their suffering continues. The effects of the forcible removal show in these childrenO~s children.
The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) which started the inquiry in 1995 submitted its report in April 1997. The commission found out that the separation of aboriginal children from their own families is still being done at present.
The HREOC inquiry reveals the pain suffered by the aboriginal children who in the latter years of their lives still long to get back their real identity. As the HREOC states:
"It is difficult to capture the complexity of effects for each person. For the majority of witnesses to the Inquiry, the effects have been multiple,continuing and profoundly disabling. The trauma of
separation and attempts at O^assimilationO~ have damaged their self-esteem and well-being, and impaired their parenting and relationships. In turn their children suffer. There is a cycle of damage people find difficult to escape unaided."
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"The Inquiry found that many forcibly removed children and their children have lost their cultures, their languages, their heritage and their lands, as well as their families and communities."
The effects of the removal of children naturally extend to the aboriginal communities from where the children come from. Again, in the words of HREOC:
"The Inquiry found the loss of so many children has affected the health and morale of many indigenous communities. Indigenous men and women generally lost their purpose in their families and communities. Individual responses to this loss could result in drinking binges, hospitalisation following accidents or assaults, or behavi our which leads to incarceration or premature death."
The expected benefit of separation in terms of better future in a predominantly non-aboriginal community has not been shown to be extensive. The rate of likely assessment of poor or fair health of people removed is double that of people who were not. The removed people are not better educated, not more likely getting employed, not receiving significantly higher income than those who were not. They are twice as likely arrested more than once in the past five years.
The Australian government as well as private institutions (mainly church orphanages and similar institutions) in the country believe that separation of children from families who they consider unfit to raise them is necessary for their own best interests. But with the HREOC inquiry, there is a grave doubt on whether indeed the best interests of the aboriginal children had been promoted judging from the effects of the separation.
The sincere intention of the government and the private institutions to help the children is not exactly being questioned. But the manner by which the program was done especially in the light of the highly sensitive idea of separating children from their natural parents and community is criticized.
On the other hand, the program becomes controversial as it is based on the concept of assimilation. The inquiry has shown that assimilationist programs lead to loss of language, culture, heritage and sense of own community - matters held dearest by the aborigines.
The HREOC inquiry made a conclusion that the forcible removal of aboriginal children is a violation of human rights.
It stated that:
- "the forcible removal of indigenous children was a gross violation of their human rights. It was racially discriminatory and continued after Australia, as a member of the United Nations from 1945, committed itself to abolish racial discrimination..."
- "by the early 1950s, the international prohibition of racial discrimination of the kind to which indigenous families and children were subjected was well-recognised, even in Australia..."
- "forcible removal was an act of genocide contrary to the Convention of Genocide ratified by Australia in 1949. The Convention on Genocide specifically includes 'forcibly transferring children of [a] group' with the intention of destroying the group."
The HREOC inquiry likewise found that
"... even before international human rights law developed in the 1940s the treatment of Indigenous people breached Australian legal stan dards. Indigenous families were entitled to expect the protection of the British common law imported into Australia.
Two relevant legal principles were denied on racial grounds to indigenous families. These principles grew from the common law's respect for personal and family liberty and parental rights. The first was that children should not be removed from their parents unless a court makes that decsion. The court order must be based on evidence proving removal is in the best interests of the child. The second principle was that parents are the legal guardians of their children unless a court orders otherwise in the interests of the child. The legal guardian has the right to decide where the children will live and how they will be educated and raised."
In many parts of Australia, taking aboriginal children without court order was legal for many years.
The HREOC inquiry does not attempt to create a sense of guilt among Australians especially the younger generations. But it urges a recognition that harm was done to members of their own community based merely on their being aboriginal people.
For the sake of the aboriginal people and the non-aboriginal Australians, a healing process is recommended. The people removed are being helped in 'going home' - in knowing their own family, community, and roots.
HREOC thus recommends a host of measures to address the harm done. Such measures are the following:
These measures are meant to heal the wounds of those who were removed from their aboriginal families. The measures are premised on the recognition of the ill-effects of removal, and on official apology for the same. They are not meant to bring back a lost past but to help build still a better future where aboriginal and non-aboriginal peoples live together reconciled and mutually respecting each other's rights.
The people affected by this episode on the life of aboriginal people in Australia include the non-aboriginal people themselves. They underwent the experience of witnessing how a group of people is been deprived of culture, language and sense of indigenous community living.
This episode of 'stolen generation' provides an example of how redressing human rights violations relates to the larger community where the violations had occurred. Though the principal violators can be identified and even brought to justice, the wounds sustained cannot heal unless the whole community takes a significant part in the recognition of the harm and in the provision of reparation for those who suffered. Ultimately, any violation of human rights is an assault on the well-being of the community.
Bringing them home - A guide to the findings and recommendations of the National Inquiry into the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, Human Rights and Equal
Opportunity Commission, Sydney, Australia, 1997.
Various other documents on the issue made by HREOC for public distribution.