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Inside the Threatened Refugee Camp for Australia's Indigenous People

Since its founding a year ago the camp has endured abuse from the public, criticism from the Premier, and raids by the police. But for Western Australia's homeless and dispossessed there's nowhere else to go.

by Kristen Daly and Jeff Tan
Apr 11 2016, 12:00am

Clinton Pryor steadies the flag marking the entrance to Matagarup as a storm blows in. All photos by Jeff Tan

The Matagarup First Nations Refugee Camp occupies an oblong-shaped island on a bend of the Swan River. Here children swim off the riverbanks and adults fish for dinner and everyone leads the most traditional lives they can, only a few kilometers from Perth's Central Business District.

The camp is clean, carefully organized, and alcohol free, but according to the city council it's an eyesore. On Tuesday, April 4, police converged on the island to forcefully remove tents and belongings. This was one of several efforts by police to remove the camp, but it was the most concerted. Many of the island's occupants—including almost 150 homeless people—worked through Tuesday night to reinstall tents, only to see them dismantled again the next morning. On Wednesday, a few dozen remained at the site as elders considered the next step.

Aunty Bella Bropho, founder of the Matagarup Refugee Camp

In many ways this latest turn of events could be a fitting end for the Matagarup First Nations Camp, which was born out of government evictions. In November 2014 Western Australian Premier Colin Barnett announced a plan to forcibly close up to 150 of the state's 274 remote Aboriginal communities. Barnett said his government was forced to act after federal funding for basic services in the areas had dried up. The following March, a Nyungah elder named Aunty Bella Bropho responded by founding Matagarup.

Leaders at Matagarup label the place a "refugee camp," but a diverse range of people of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous background live there, including homeless families and backpackers." Matagarup has become a place of refuge, a place where we can make a stand and raise awareness for the forced closures," Bella told VICE.

Herbert Bropho stands at the causeway outside the Heirisson Island camp. He withstands strong racial abuse from some cars as they drive by, laughing and yelling back, "I love you."

The impending threat of dispossession resonates strongly with both Ms. Bropho and her brother Herbert (who oversees camp security) after the closure of their own community, the Swan Valley Nyungah Community in 2003. In that year, Premier Geoff Gallop passed legislation that has since underpinned many of Western Australia's community closures.

Four years earlier, in 1999, a 15-year-old girl named Susan Taylor hanged herself at Swan Valley. After a lengthy inquiry, the state government concluded family violence and child abuse in Aboriginal communities was "shocking and difficult to comprehend." In the final report, titled Putting the Picture Together, the government made almost 200 findings and recommendations. Although it had good intentions, the report also recommended removing the management powers of the Aboriginal corporation in charge of the east Perth community, effectively allowing for the forced removal of its residents.

"It's things they always paint Aboriginal communities with: sexual abuse, alcohol abuse, drug abuse," Bella said. "It wasn't the fault of our community. Premier Geoff Gallop failed to save our community, he condemned it."

Greg Martin pauses while putting up a tent. "The use of sexual abuse in a report to remove Indigenous people from their community is a model they perfected here and then used in the intervention in the Northern Territory," he told us.

Sadly the community's closure may have also occurred on a false pretext. A parliamentary committee was later formed to investigate the bill and ruled the camp was no worse, and "in many ways better" than other urban Aboriginal communities. The majority of school children were found to have comparably good attendance records and access to medical care and other services. Even magistrate Sue Gordon, who was an author of the original report, testified "it was an adequate and reasonably well maintained facility."

The memory of the Swan Valley Nyungah Community closure permeates Matagarup, which currently accommodates a few dozen permanent residents but offers a lifeline to many more. Up until Tuesday's raid it accommodated about nine permanent protesters but offered refuge to many more.

A kid chasing gulls. One of many children at the camp

Clinton Pryor, a Nyangar and Yamatji man and a central figure at the camp told us that their population of homeless people has steadily risen to 140 as of this month, in addition to protesters. Newcomers are offered tents and encouraged to set up camp, either as an escape from unsafe dwellings, or from the challenges of living on the street.

Pryor told VICE that assisting these individuals homeless people at the camp is a "huge responsibility," but the activists based there and the locals who have donated tents, food, and other goods feel compelled to help. He told us that homelessness across the city is getting worse and worse. ( A report tabled last September revealed more than 20,000 Western Australians were on a support waiting list, with an average waiting time in 2014–15 of more than three years, up 12 weeks from the previous year.)

Keeping the camp clean is a priority for residents who are only too aware of criticism from outside

Meanwhile, the long-term homeless youth and families at the camp agree that with around-the-clock security and a strong sense of community, Matagarup feels like home. "I like it here, it's safe, there's always someone walking around on security taking care of the place," said Danny, who moved to the camp in December after 14 years on the street. "I find here I stay out of trouble. If you're having a bad day, there's always someone to have a chat and lift you back up, lift up your spirits."

Over the last year, a range of individuals and organizations, including the First Nations Homelessness Project, have galvanized the support offered by camp elders by finding housing for its occupants or providing work. But leaders remain wary of attempts to stymie this progress and dismantle the camp, particularly after taking the City of Perth to court in January over goods confiscated or damaged in last year's raids. After an ongoing struggle for their property, fears of further confrontations on the island were realized this week.

Swimming

In a statement released Wednesday, City of Perth said it acted on the grounds of a local law that forbids camping or erecting tents and similar structures on government property. The council works with the Department of Housing and various agencies to assist the genuinely homeless, and only three to four family groups on the island met the relevant criteria. It said more than 80 percent of tents removed from the island on Tuesday were vacant.

For elders like Bella Bropho, the members of Matagarup camp—including its many homeless occupants—have a right to stay on Heirisson Island, a registered site under the Aboriginal Heritage Act and a symbol of her people's history. "We've made a stand on this site, because it's a sacred site, a birthing site," she said. "People get frightened, they take off, but they come back. There's nowhere else to go."

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See more of Jeff's photography here.