Remote Australia: Poor Housing, Over-Crowding = Disease/Death

rural landscape in Northern Territory, Australia
Arnhem Land, Ubir photo by Frans-Banja Mulder is licensed under CC BY 3.0
Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory of Australia, where poor housing is making residents sick.

Why is it important to have a universal definition of human rights such as the U.N.’s Human Right to Adequate Housing?

For those of us fortunate enough to live in one of the ‘advanced’ societies, there seems to be a tacit agreement that we all share the same rights. And yet there is evidence world-wide that parts of a national society can suffer badly from collective ‘out of sight, out of mind.’

While it might be difficult to see the contrast between haves and have-nots in the midst of a bustling modern community, the have-nots can become glaringly obvious in more remote areas. This is not just an accidental occurrence in one particular country but instead might be considered a universal pattern of societal neglect.

The following article was written by two public health nurses with hands-on experience in remote regions of Australia’s Northern Territory. If ever a modern country could be accused of ignoring those out of sight and out of mind, of needing firm rights declarations and the civic responsibility to ensure their enforcement, this is it.

In the words of Tasmyn Soller and Nerida Moore:

“We see mothers who are desperate to find solutions to enable them to wash their children’s clothes, limited by access to washing machines, power and water. Likewise, we see families advocating to reduce overcrowding in their community who are told to wait patiently for nearly a decade for a new house to be built.”

Wait a moment! Surely there’s been a mixup here. Isn’t this an article about Arctic Canada? It certainly sounds like it! No, must be somewhere else. In Canada there are those who have waiting for replacement housing for many decades, not one. Another group of out of sight, out of mind citizens in need of solid human rights definitions and enforcement.

Read more the health consequences of over-crowded, remote Australian settlements with poor housing in InSight: Remote community housing: holding government to account

Soller and Moore are right to express concern about the health of their clients and to discuss how it can be affected by crowding. A finding that 51% of households are crowded is pretty compelling. It’s also worth pointing out that views of the people who are living in the crowded conditions should also have a voice in the matter, as things aren’t always as straightforward as they can appear to an outsider. Try: Indigenous Knowledge And Experience Central To Housing, Homelessness And Urban Development

Personal Addendum: Young and oblivious to then-recent history, this writer had the opportunity to be an occasional bus driver (tracked vehicle) between the main Resolute Bay, Canadian Northwest Territory, settlement and the Inuit village a few kilometres away. The inhabitants of that village had been forcibly located there a decade or so earlier by the Canadian Government. (Oblivious to that fact, I found out years later.)

The usual object of the bus run was to pick up the driver of the front-end loader who collected garbage from hither and yon. He had trouble adapting to an arbitrary weekday and time to collect stuff that would stay frozen solid until spring.

At first, it was a surprise to find him asleep in a bed with an entire extended family numbering on towards a dozen, gauging by the lumps at least. There was room for beds elsewhere in the house so, being just a dumb young southern Canadian boy, I never even thought of overcrowding and simply assumed it was custom. Turns out I was right.

Too bad that southern social workers who arrived in the Canadian north, unfamiliar with the difference between necessity and custom, apparently used such bed-ridden ‘overcrowding’ as a reason to seize children from their families. Or so I’ve been told.

So I would add as an addendum to ‘holding feet to a fire’ over aboriginal rights to adequate housing — that the feet-holders be served not only by their knowledge of human rights for all citizens, but also schooled (or at least open to schooling) about local social customs.