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Report Outlines Racism Toward Aboriginal Australians During Worst Bushfires on Record

A bushfire burns in Bodalla, New South Wales, Australia, Jan. 25, 2020.

Indigenous Australians experienced racism and unfair treatment during the catastrophic "Black Summer" bushfires, according to new research. It has found that First Nations communities suffered more than other groups because of failures by the authorities during the crisis.

Australia's "Black Summer" was its most intense bushfire season on record.

Between July 2019 and March 2020, the blazes swept across 24 million hectares of land. Thirty-three people died, and thousands of homes were destroyed.

New research released this week has found that large numbers of Indigenous people suffered "extreme trauma" from both the fires and the emergency response. They were turned away from evacuation centers and ignored in disaster management plans.

The study by the Australian National University's Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research blames deep-seated racism and the lingering consequences of European colonization in 1788.

The study's lead author, Bhiamie Williamson, said that racism was often a factor.

"Aboriginal people did go to the evacuation centers only to be turned away because the staff there said we've helped enough of your people today; we've helped enough of your community members,” Williamson said. “When you speak to people who are directly affected and you ask them why is that these things are happening to you, all of them connect it to historical racism and colonization. The most damaging instance that happens for people who have lived through these disasters and are still recovering is feeling like they have been forgotten."

Aboriginal Australians make up about 3% of the Australian population.

The university study asserts that disaster preparation plans also ignored the needs of First Nations communities.

Williamson said there are "scary similarities" between the way First Nations communities were treated during the bushfires of 2019-2020 and this year's devastating flooding in eastern Australia.

"We can look at another natural disaster that has recently occurred: the flooding, particularly in northern New South Wales — the Northern Rivers area,” Williamson said. “We see a lot of the same issues happening. So, has practice changed? No. Are there people looking to change practice? Yes. But these are very big institutions. These are very big processes. It would require legal reform, and these are much longer-term changes that we need."

There has, so far, been no official government response to the Australian National University's study.

A Royal Commission into the Black Summer fires said that Indigenous bushfire techniques that use controlled burns to reduce the amount of vegetation could boost Australia's resilience to natural disasters.

The commission warned that global warming was inevitable, and that "compounding disasters" in Australia would become more frequent. The high-level inquiry, published in October 2020, said that natural hazards, including wildfires, floods and storms, could happen simultaneously or one after another.