In a press release issued on November 1, the Kaurareg people of the Torres Islands declared their independence from Australia and dubbed their new nation the United Isles of Kaiwalagal. The declaration comes at a time when many people in the region are suffering from poor social and economic conditions and a lack of group identity. The unrest stems from what many Kaurareg see as poor representation of their interests in local and national government. The press release further states that regional organizations in the area have not respected the Kaurareg’s identity, culture and their traditional boundaries, and that the Kaurareg are presently examining international options for independence.
The Kaurareg people are the traditional ‘owners’ of a number of Torres Strait Islands. Since the arrival of European colonists the Kaurareg have been moved by force repeatedly from island to island. In the late 1800s the Kaurareg were concentrated on Murales Island, but were attacked by white settlers and relocated to Hammond Island. They were moved again in the 1920s to Moa Island. In the 1940s the Kaurareg people made their way to Horn Island where a large population still lives today.
With the passage of the Native Title Act in 1993, Native Title Tribunal (1994) the Kaurareg people were granted partial autonomy in their homeland. In 2001 a federal court ruled in favor of the Kaurareg and returned seven islands to their control, including the islands of Damaralag, Tarilas (Packe Island), Yeta (Port Lihou), Mipa (Turtle Island), Zuna (Entrance), Muralas (Prince of Wales) and Ngurupai (Horn). This is one of the busiest areas in the Torres Strait and home to the region’s only major airport.
However, the region was subsequently put under the jurisdiction of the Torres Strait Regional Authority (TSRA) and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC). The Kaurareg people say that they feel neglected by the two organizations and caught in the middle of a power struggle. The turmoil has raised questions of identity among the Kaurareg people, who by and large do not view themselves as Torres Strait Islanders but as Aborigines. The Kaurareg are also concerned about the ‘fourth world’ living conditions that are forcing many of them to leave their ancestral homes to find a better life. They say they are upset with what they see as the neglect on the part of both organizations in helping to implement programs that would reverse the emigration and bring about more economic prosperity.
The rancor shows no signs of abating. Following the Kaurareg declaration, the TSRA and the Island Coordinating Council (ICC) issued a joint statement dismissing the Kaurareg’s claims as “deceitful half-truths.” They claim that a few extremists have ‘hijacked’ the Kaurareg issue and that they are using it for their own self-interest. The statement defended the role of the TSRA and ICC, citing a number of moves the organizations have taken to aid the Kaurareg people.