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South Sea Islanders in Australia

  • Profile

    Australia’s South Sea Islanders mostly around Mackay in north Queensland. Their exact numbers are uncertain, though estimates range from around 10,000 to 15,000-20,000 and even 30,000 – 60,000. The 2011 Census identified just over 4,000 South Sea Islander responses.

    Historical context

    Between 1863 and 1904 more than 55,000 Melanesians (then known as Kanakas) were recruited, mainly from the New Hebrides (Vanuatu) and Solomon Islands, to work in the cane fields of Queensland. After the end of the contract labour system most returned, but more than 2,000 remained in Australia, many around Mackay in north Queensland.

    Descendants of these Melanesian migrants, who suffered less institutional discrimination than their parents, gained housing from the Aboriginal and Islander Advancement Corporation in the 1960s, but access to education was inadequate and South Sea Islanders became one of the poorest groups in Australia. Although white Australians regarded them as Aborigines, they were not eligible for the benefits given to Aboriginal peoples unless they denied their South Sea Islander origins, and do not have land rights like other indigenous Australians.

    In 1977 a Royal Commission into Human Relationships recommended that they be given access to the same benefits that were available to Aborigines. By the 1990s, the 11,000 South Sea Islanders were disadvantaged in terms of such basic needs as home ownership, health, education and employment; the unemployment rate was 28.5 per cent, two and a half times the national average, and few were employed in skilled occupations. South Sea Islanders continued to experience the outcome of a history of exploitation and racial discrimination similar to that of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, but were unrecognized as a distinct group. A 1992 Inquiry by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission recommended that they be formally recognized as a distinct disadvantaged group, and that schemes comparable with those available to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples be made available to them. In 1994 the government accepted these recommendations and South Sea Islanders began to move towards a new future. While their cultural distinctiveness is recognised they have increasingly become absorbed into the wider community.

    This recognition came later in Queensland, and it was only in July 2000 that the Queensland government formally recognised South Sea Islanders as a distinct ethnic and cultural group and acknowledged their contribution to Queensland’s development. The government also recognised the discrimination, injustice, disadvantage and prejudice experienced by Australian South Sea Islanders throughout history and the significant disadvantage the community still faces today.

    Current issues

    There is a need for not only recognition of the Australian South Sea Islanders as a distinct cultural group but a real need to start implementing some positive changes to assist South Sea Islanders in employment, services and other areas. Since federal recognition in 1994 and Queensland recognition in 2000 there has been minimal change, and community workers are seeking funds allocated to allow ‘area specific’ Australian South Sea Islander (ASSI) agencies to hire community development workers to work specifically with South Sea Islanders. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services have serviced South Sea Islanders in some areas for many years, but South Sea islanders are seeking government resources to meet their needs and allow them to have appropriate service without prejudice.

    A key concern of South Sea Islanders are the stolen wages of ancestors. Evidence suggests that the wages of approximately 15,000 men who died while working as indentured labourers in the sugar cane fields were not paid to their families; the amount would be the equivalent of AU$40 million today.

    Over the past decade, there have also been efforts to establish links with relatives in Vanuatu, New Caledonia and Solomon Islands.

    Updated November 2017

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