There's no town like Alice for violent crime - now mayor declares a crisis

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 April, 2006, 12:00am

It is renowned as the gateway to Uluru, but the desert town of Alice Springs has been named the violent-crime capital of Australia, with its squalid Aboriginal camps branded 'a sea of despair' likened to the worst South African slums.

New figures reveal a record increase in violent crime among the 2,500 Aborigines who inhabit the dusty, rundown settlements on the outskirts of the tourist town.

Physical and sexual assaults have risen by 50 per cent in the past year, from 205 cases to 316.

In the past 16 months, 15 people - almost all of them Aborigines - have died from alcohol-related violence.

A federal government minister, Joe Hockey, said conditions in the camps around 'the Alice' were indistinguishable from those in South Africa's notorious townships.

'It represents a sea of despair. The camps represent the very worst aspects of poverty in remote and regional Australia,' said Mr Hockey, the community services minister.

'No community in 21st century Australia should be living in the sort of conditions that the people outside Alice Springs are living in.'

He compared the dilapidated Aboriginal settlements with a township outside Cape Town he visited more than a decade ago.

'I could not differentiate between Cross Ways in 1990 and what I saw in Alice Springs in the 21st century. It is devastating stuff.'

Hundreds of thousands of tourists pass through Alice Springs each year on their way to Uluru, the indigenous name of Ayers Rock, a three-hour drive into the 'red centre'.

While it is impossible to miss the small knots of Aborigines getting drunk on cheap cask wine in the dried-up channel of the Todd River which runs through the town, most tourists are oblivious to the existence of the outlying camps.

Largely hidden around the fringes of the town, the 18 'camps' consist of public housing built in the past 30 years and are awash with unemployment, ill health and rampant alcohol and substance abuse, including petrol sniffing by children as young as 12.

Mangy dogs snuffle through smoking piles of rubbish and the wrecks of burned-out cars sit beside houses with broken windows and cracked walls.

'We've reached crisis level and we have to see some changes,' the mayor of Alice Springs, Fran Kilgariff, said.

'It's very distressing. People are living in conditions that we wouldn't tolerate in the non-indigenous community. There's such a breakdown in Aboriginal social life that many of these people have no real hope for the future.'

The problems have been exacerbated by a recent influx of Aborigines from remote desert settlements as a result of the disintegration of traditional social structures and the scourge of alcohol and petrol abuse in communities.

'We're a service centre for 260 communities,' Ms Kilgariff said. 'Once they come into town Aboriginal people get caught in a cycle of alcohol abuse and violence.'

Last weekend, a 36-year-old Aboriginal man died after being stabbed at one of the camps and police seized weapons including axes, spears and tyre levers from more than 100 people who had gathered at another settlement as part of a family feud.

A 15-year-old Aboriginal girl, Jenissa Ryan, died in January after being subjected to a horrific gang rape by young Aboriginal men.

She was the great-granddaughter of one of Australia's most celebrated Aboriginal artists, Albert Namatjira.

Her mother, Carmel Ryan, pleaded for the authorities to provide protection for women and children.

'Half the women fear for their children, who have been physically abused or who have witnessed violence in their homes,' Mrs Ryan said.

Overcrowding also contributes to tensions - in some cases a dozen or more people are sharing a three-bedroom house.

The authorities in Alice Springs are considering tougher bans on drinking in public areas.

The law states that drinking is not allowed within 2km of a licensed liquor outlet but it is flouted on a daily basis.

The town council is also considering appointing a truancy officer to round up the hundreds of Aboriginal children who fail to attend school. Another possibility is making the payment of social security conditional on Aboriginal parents ensuring their children go to school. A town camp taskforce which has been studying the problems is expected to report to the council in a few weeks.