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Last Updated: Monday, 16 February 2004, 14:42 GMT
Australia's lost generation

By Phil Mercer
BBC correspondent in Sydney

Youths wearing t-shirts to cover their faces throw stones at police in Redfern
The disturbance was the worst violence in Australia for years
Redfern has been at the heart of Sydney's Aboriginal community for generations.

Large sections of property - known locally as "The Block" - were bought with the help of the federal government in the early 1970s.

The inner city district is close to the centre of Sydney.

Over the years, thousands of people have come from all corners of this vast continent to look for work and to meet up in the "big smoke" with relatives and friends.

Today much of The Block is in ruins, its derelict buildings a haven for drug dealers and their self-destructive clients.

'Dark ages'

It is - as one local resident told BBC News Online - like a bomb site.

A brave stance was taken here last night... and that will continue while our community is being ostracised and intimidated and traumatised by the racist police of New South Wales
Redfern community leader Lyall Munro
"We're living in the dark ages here," he said.

It reminded me of a recent visit to the area and memories of a young family living in a tent within sight of the skyscrapers downtown.

The decline of what was a vibrant hub for itinerant native workers has mirrored the decay suffered by other indigenous communities around Australia.

The disturbances in Redfern have come against a backdrop of poverty, dispossession and welfare dependency.

Aborigines are the most disadvantaged group in Australia.

Indigenous men die - on average - 20 years younger than their white counterparts and suffer disproportionately high rates of ill health, imprisonment and unemployment.

The abuse of alcohol and drugs have made many Aboriginal households extremely dangerous places.

A recent study found indigenous women were 50 times more likely to endure domestic violence than white Australian women.

Forlorn hope

Across this country there are hundreds of projects attempting to shine a light through all this darkness. There are programmes for young offenders and victims of abuse as well as educational and vocational training.

Police in riot gear
Redfern youths say they are constantly harassed by police
But the troubles in Redfern are a reminder that much more needs to be done.

Cliff Foley, a senior member of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), said he was surprised and saddened by the violence.

"We don't want to lose another generation to drugs and crime," he said.

It may be a forlorn hope.

The majority of young Aborigines in Redfern are unemployed. Drug dealing - especially heroin - is a way to make money and an act of defiance against the mainly white police force.

Young people complain of constant harassment by the police.

Feelings of alienation from the prosperous white world just a few kilometres away - coupled with anger over the death of the Aboriginal teenager, Thomas Hickey - may in part explain the ferocity of these disturbances.

Major setback

The young of Redfern were encouraged by a senior community figure, Lyall Munro, to take a stand.

We have full confidence in the police and they have our full backing.... there will be an independent assessment of the tragic death of a young man
New South Wales Premier Bob Carr
"A brave stance was taken here last night... and that will continue while our community is being ostracised and intimidated and traumatised by the racist police of New South Wales," Mr Munro told Australia's ABC radio.

His allegations have been strongly denied by senior police commanders.

There will be three investigations into the rioting.

New South Wales Premier Bob Carr has said alcohol and hot summer temperatures contributed to the unrest. He has given his support to the officers on duty in Redfern.

"We have full confidence in the police and they have our full backing," he said.

"I want to extend condolences to the family of Thomas Hickey and to say to them there will be an independent assessment of the tragic death of a young man."

This has been the worst violence Australia has seen in years.

What is certain is this horrific episode will be a major setback for efforts to improve relations between black and white Australians.

SEE ALSO
Sydney riots over Aborigine death
16 Feb 04 |  Asia-Pacific
In pictures: Sydney riots
16 Feb 04 |  Photo Gallery
Country profile: Australia
03 Jan 04 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Australia
04 Feb 04 |  Country profiles

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