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Torres Strait Islanders in Australia

  • Profile

    The Melanesian Torres Strait Islanders have lived in the islands north of Queensland for at least 10,000 years and are closely related to the nearby Papuan people of Papua New Guinea. There is some mobility between the two areas. The Torres Strait Islanders have two main Melanesian languages (and a pidgin English) and is increasingly concentrated in the urban centre of Thursday Island (within the Torres Strait). In the twentieth century there was considerable migration to the Cape York peninsula on the mainland and to the large urban centres of Cairns, Townsville and Brisbane.

    Historical context

    Because of their marginal location Torres Strait Islanders largely escaped the early excesses of European invasion and settlement until well into the nineteenth century, when a pearling and trading economy began to develop.

    In 1982 Eddie Mabo and four other Meriam people of the Murray Islands in Torres Strait sought to confirm their traditional land rights in the High Court. They claimed continuous enjoyment of their land rights to Murray Island (Mer) and thus that these rights had not been extinguished by the annexure of the islands by the Queensland government in 1879. The case took ten years, during which time Eddie Mabo and three other plaintiffs died, but in 1992 the High Court upheld the claim. There has been growing pressure for increased self-determination and, in the late 1980s; there was pressure for self-government (along the lines of that in the Cook Islands) because of what was perceived as neglect by the federal and Queensland state governments. Greater powers were subsequently devolved to the Island Councils, and there are now eighteen of these, and to the Torres Strait Regional Authority that was established in 1994. The TSRA has 20 representatives and is responsible for a range of economic and cultural issues. The establishment of the TSRA has reduced demands for substantially greater autonomy.

    Current issues

    The contemporary economy is based on fishing, but much of the population is dependent on welfare services. There is some contemporary concern over island flooding. Islanders have experienced discrimination and inadequate access to employment and services. Land issues have posed problems in the Torres Strait. The Australian government is concerned over drug, people and gun smuggling through the Torres Strait between Australia and Papua New Guinea.

    Updated November 2017

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