UN Finds Indigenous Youth Are 'Punished for Being Poor'

Young Aboriginals are going to prison for behavior associated with being poor and bored, but not dangerous.

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04 April 2017, 5:00am

Art by Ashley Goodall

This article was originally published on VICE Australia.

The UN's special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, has condemned the Australian government for failing to take action on a number of socio-economic issues disproportionately affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.

Tauli-Corpuz undertook a 15-day tour of Australia's Indigenous communities in March and presented her preliminary findings on Monday. She found that the high incarceration rate experienced by Aboriginal people was a "major human rights concern" and questioned why so many Indigenous Australians were locked behind bars at such a young age.

"Across Australia, there are far too many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in detention," Tauli-Corpuz said. "These children have committed offences. Nevertheless, these are mostly relatively minor and I was informed by several sources, including judges, that in the majority of instances the initial offences were non-violent."

According to Tauli-Corpuz, it is "completely inappropriate to detain these children in punitive, rather than rehabilitative conditions" and that they are "essentially being punished for being poor and in most cases, prison will only aggravate the cycle of violence, poverty, and crime." She said that meeting with young incarcerated Aboriginal children, some of them only 12 years old, was the most disturbing element of her visit. She told the Guardian that many of them were behind bars for "petty" offences like sleeping rough or stealing food.

The rapporteur suggested that government funds that are being used for detaining young people could be diverted to prevention and reintegration programmes instead. She cited Melbourne's Children's Koorie Court as an alternative court process that aims to reduce imprisonment rates and encourages the participation of community Elders in the justice process.

Tauli-Corpuz expressed disappointment that despite the multitude of recommendations issued by human rights organisations and Royal Commissions, too few had been implemented by the Australian Government over the past decade.

"I find it disturbing that despite having been reiterated time and time again, many recommendations have not been implemented in practice," she said. She noted that the Indigenous Advancement Strategy initiated by the Government in 2014 entailed a "radical" cut of $534 million to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander programmes, to "devastating" effect.

Other major concerns addressed in the preliminary report included child removal practices, and the "unacceptable" levels of disadvantage experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women that were informed by "a historical context of intersecting, systemic forms of discrimination."

You can read full preliminary statement here. Tauli-Corpuz will present her full findings and recommendations to the UN Human Rights Council in September this year.

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