CANBERRA (Reuters) - A group of Australian Aborigines asked the United Nations Wednesday for refugee status, claiming special emergency laws to curb alcohol and sexual abuse in the remote outback have turned them into outcasts at home.
Richard Downs, a spokesperson for the 4,000-strong Alyawarra people in central Australia, said the request was given to James Anaya, the United Nations special rapporteur on indigenous human rights, during a fact-finding tour to Australia.
“We’ve got no say at all. We feel like an outcast in our community, refugees in our own country,” Downs told state radio.
A letter given to Anaya, in Australia at the invitation of the center-left government to examine a so-called “intervention” by police and soldiers in the Northern Territory two years ago, asked the UN to list the Alyawarra as internally displaced.
The intervention, launched by the former conservative government in June 2007 to stamp out widespread child sex abuse, fueled by chronic alcoholism from “rivers of grog” in indigenous communities, had taken away indigenous rights, Downs said.
Australia’s 460,000 Aborigines make up about 2 percent of the population. They suffer higher rates of unemployment, substance abuse and domestic violence, and have a life expectancy 17 years shorter than other Australians.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has made indigenous affairs a priority of his government, winning praise for apologizing in parliament for historic injustices against Aborigines.
Rudd has said he would continue the controversial intervention but review the way it operates, including an invitation for Anaya to visit remote settlements in a first-ever UN fact-finding mission, long opposed by Rudd’s predecessor, John Howard.
Howard ordered the intervention in the final months of his 11-and-a-half years in office, declaring the widespread sexual abuse of Aboriginal children to be a national emergency.
Anaya has received hundreds of submissions and letters during his two-week visit to Aboriginal communities across the Northern Territory and other parts of Australia, to be followed by a report back to the UN Human Rights Council.
An Australian-based spokeswoman for the United Nations said Anaya, a U.S. law professor and human rights advocate, would not comment on individual submissions.
Downs said the letter followed a protest last month in Ampilatwatja, 300 kms (186 miles) northeast of Alice Springs, when about 100 people walked off their land in protest against poor living conditions in government-owned houses.
Under the intervention, extra police, soldiers and medical teams were sent to Aboriginal communities, where alcohol and pornography were banned and welfare payments were quarantined to make sure the money is spent on food, clothing and health care.
An independent review last year found the intervention affected 45,500 Aboriginal men, women and children in more than 500 Northern Territory communities, and progress on health care and security were undermined by a lack of full community support.
Editing by Bill Tarrant