Australia’s Stolen Generations

By Cassandra Bockstael
Because there’s nothing more powerful than the personal story. For people to understand, we have to open ourselves up. It’s hard to tell our personal stories but we are doing this to educate people. For us to heal as a country these are the stories we need to share.” – Debra Hocking, Stolen Generation survivor 

Imagine: you are three years old. One day, someone comes to your house and takes you to a new place. This is where you live now. Once you arrive, you are told that your parents died and they never loved you. You are sad but you don’t have arm to cry, you are hungry but have nothing to eat, you want to sleep but the noise makes it impossible. When someone hears you speak, they tell you that it is prohibited to use your language and you have to learn a new one. If you speak your language you are beaten. You must also pray to a certain god you don’t know. Growing up, you aspired to become a doctor, however, now you are only taught basic maths, how to read but mainly how to clean a house. One night, your “carer” (they could be a man or a woman) comes into your room, gets into your bed and touches you, forces you to have sexual relations. When you come to someone to complain thy call you a liar, a stupid girl or boy, you are beaten for complaining and sent back to work.

Indigenous children were even referred to as “aboriginal inmates”

You work every day and when you turn 21, despite their promises, you don’t get your money. You have forgotten your culture, your language: they are pushed deep inside you and you cannot express them. Once you are an adult you fall into drug and alcohol abuse, are victim to arbitrary arrests and discrimination. You live in poverty, your family lives in poverty, the police aren’t trustworthy and, as you are the shame of the Government, no one will help you. This is the story of around 40,000 reported Indigenous Australian children. Officially this is 1/10 of Indigenous Australian communities. Unofficially, including unreported figures this could be up to 1/3.

Between the 1800s and 1970-80s children of Indigenous Australians have been removed from their home in the context of a policy of assimilation by British colonisers. These children are known as the Stolen Generations. In the beginning of the European occupation, Christian schools for aboriginals were created with the aim of “christianising and civilising” indigenous children. Later, this removal became institutionalised within the law and supported by the federal government based on “welfare reasons”.

During this period, Indigenous Australian children suffered wide human rights abuses which had important repercussions on their future and on future generations who are still affected today. Children were living in terrible conditions leading to both physical and psychological harm. It is clear that the States and the Government failed to protect those children. Indigenous children were even referred to as “aboriginal inmates”.

“Some still deny the suffering of Indigenous Australians”

In 1995, the Government asked the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission to start a National Inquiry.Two years later, the National Inquiry produced the Bringing Them Home Report which was presented to the Australian Parliament and included 54 recommendations. These recommendations mostly focused on acknowledgment and apology by the Parliament, the police forces, churches and others and on the support and development of Indigenous culture. One of the recommendations was for the Prime Minister of that time, John Howard, to apologise, however he refused to do so. Indigenous Australians had to wait until 2008 for authentic national apologies by the Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

There was, and there still is, a political reluctance to apologise and take responsibility for the past actions for three reasons. First, it was not accepted that the present generation was responsible for the deeds of the past. Second, official apologies may result in legal liability (which is impossible because of an Act passed in 1987). Finally, it is argued that there is no need to apologise because the laws allowing the removal of Indigenous children were authorised by the Commonwealth.

Some state that Indigenous Australians suffered genocide* and that the country was not ready to face this and so buried it under national apologies. In addition, the apologies were criticised by the Indigenous Australians because no concrete actions followed them. There was also a reluctance at the political level to engage in a real process of reconciliation, inclusion and reconstruction with Indigenous Australians. This aspect is particularly important considering the structural and long-lasting effects of the removal on generations of Indigenous Australians. Indigenous Australians did not benefit from quality education, they suffered from a lack of emotional development due to their forced removal and are now more likely to have mental illness, addiction problems and to live in poverty.

The process failed to profoundly address the effects of removal and give equal opportunity to Indigenous people. Today, Indigenous children are still 6 times more likely to be removed by child welfare and, according to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous People, the Indigenous youth is 21 times more likely to face the judicial system than non-indigenous children and also face it at a younger age.

Some still deny the suffering of Indigenous Australians. However, the Indigenous people show their resilience and continue to speak up to raise awareness despite their healing wounds.

*Australia never ratified the convention for that reason.

After obtaining her bachelor in law at the Catholic University of Louvain, Cassandra graduated in 2018 from the University of Antwerp (LLM). She mostly resided in Antwerp but also travelled to Sydney and Geneva to obtain her major in Human Rights and Sustainable Development. She is mostly interested in issues related to children and armed conflict, terrorism and transitional justice.