Indigenous affairs

Legally invisible

In his small home in Geraldton, Noongar-Yamatji elder Matthew Anderson flicks through an old photo album.

The images are the only physical evidence his father ever existed.

“My father was born out in the bush approximately in the early 1930s,” Mr Anderson says.

“They didn’t record things like birth – to our people it wasn’t important.”

He says his father lived his whole life  without ever having his birth registered.

“He never got his driver’s licence,” he says.


Aboriginal flags fly high along Mounts Bay Road

“He didn’t get any education.

“He couldn’t even marry mum.”

Almost 4000 kilometres east of Mr Anderson, in her office in Melbourne, Monash University Law School Associate Professor Paula Gerber breathes heavily into her phone.

The Deputy Director of the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law says when Aboriginal children were taken from their families between 1900 and 1970, many of them were not given birth certificates.  

“Their first record of existence was when the warden wrote a name and an approximate age of them in the warden’s records,” Associate Professor Gerber says.

“There’s some people from that time, who are now trying to get their birth certificates, who have no record of their existence in any Western form prior to the warden making these records.”

In the foyer of Indigenous health centre Derbarl Yerrigan, at East Perth, Roger Turvey stands with his hands overlapped on the top of his walking stick.

The Noongar man walks through a narrow corridor to the doctor’s office moving the cane to his right hand, shifting the bulk of his weight to the slender stick.

Mr Turvey says during the 1940s if you wanted to be a citizen and you were Aboriginal you had to move away from the reserves or the camps and move into the “whitefella” town.


A young woman wears the Aboriginal flag outside of Derbarl Yerrigan

“You weren’t allowed to associate with your Aboriginal family,” he says.

“You had to stick to curfew and the rules – you were on a leash.”

He says Aboriginal men and women were not asked what their Indigenous name was, instead assigned a “meaningless” name instead.

“Instead of asking a person if they had an Aboriginal name they were given names like ‘Johnny Wheelbarrow,” he says.

“It stripped them of their cultural identity.

“They lost their culture, their family – they didn’t know who they were.”

Dr Gerber says many Aboriginal people still don’t experience the full rights of migrant Australians.

“It’s because of problems accessing a birth certificate,” Dr Gerber says.

“It’s the document universally recognised as being the key to accessing citizenship rights.”

Roger Turvey of Derbarl Yerrigan

Roger Turvey

She says though more research is needed into the precise number of unregistered births of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in Australia, preliminary investigations reveal it is in the thousands.

“Indigenous children’s births are still not being registered, and it’s having a serious consequence on their way of life,” she says.

“Not having a birth certificate is the equivalent of being legally invisible.”

Dr Gerber says to get a birth certificate Indigenous Australians have to comply with quite strenuous ID requirements that they can’t satisfy.

“For example; produce a passport or a driver’s licence or some other form of ID that generally you can only get if you have a birth certificate to produce.”

She says Aboriginal Australians whose birth is not registered are at greater risk of being charged for criminal offences.

“One of the things that is coming up a lot is the extent that this is creating criminal records for people,” she says.

“They’re getting into trouble with the law, for example by driving without a licence because they can’t get a licence.”

Curtin University Associate Professor in Indigenous Studies Simon Forrest stands on the second floor of the Centre for Aboriginal Studies, his hands resting on a wooden railing.

Young men celebrate Indigenous culture in Wellington Square

He was born and raised in Whadjuk country, which encompasses Perth and surrounding areas.

He says Indigenous children’s births continue to go unregistered.

“I had a boy last week actually who had gone through this, a 14-year-old boy,” Associate Professor Forrest says.

“We’re organising a trip over to Hawaii and obviously he needs a birth certificate.

“Well he didn’t have one, his mother never registered him for one.

“Now whether that’s the medical practitioner’s  fault or his mother’s, who can say, but the fact of the matter is here’s a kid that’s slipped through the cracks.”

Associate Professor Forrest says the issue affects urban and remote communities.

“It happens everywhere – it happens here,” he says.

Curtin University Aboriginal Studies associate lecturer Carol Dowling says to this day there are a lot of people who fear the State and Federal governments and child protection authorities.

“They won’t register their kids – they will literally have the baby in the hospital and go,” Dr Dowling says.


Carol Dowling

“Aboriginal mums that have a reputation with child protection have been foster kids themselves or they’ve had children already taken off them – of course they’re not going to register their babies.”

Dr Dowling says many Indigenous women will avoid contact with the healthcare system until the end of their pregnancy, many women leaving the hospital immediately after giving birth.

“They’ll go to King Edward Memorial Hospital for Women Hospital [in Subiaco], have the baby then nick out of there as quickly as possible,” she says.

“It means no registration, nothing – that child will be without legal status.

“What you’re seeing with lack of birth certificates is an indicator of what impact this has on future generations.”

Photos by Sebastian Neuweiler

Categories: Indigenous affairs