The Cape York township of Coen is struggling to cope with an influx of people fleeing the threat of violence in nearby Aurukun, with a shortage of food, accommodation and basic necessities, and reports up to 20 people are sleeping on the verandas of homes and sharing a single toilet.
- More than 130 people have fled to Coen — usually home to around 360 people
- About 100 other refugees remain in a veteran-run bush camp outside Aurukun
- There are concerns time is running out to stock Coen with food before the wet season cuts roads
More than 250 residents fled Aurukun since a riot erupted in the community on New Year’s Day, with police and government departments trying to restore order in the Indigenous community.
Around 130 Aurukun residents have taken refuge in Coen, about 300 kilometres away by road, while more than 100 others remain in a veteran-run bush camp outside Aurukun.
During the unrest in Aurukun, six homes were burnt to the ground and another two were badly damaged when an angry mob of more than 200 people took to the streets armed with makeshift weapons.
The violence followed the fatal stabbing of a 37-year-old man, with two teenagers now charged with murder.
Police said 23 people in Aurukun have since been charged with 79 offences over the riot.
The charges related to the six houses being set on fire, two other houses that were extensively damaged, and other offences.
Twelve people have been charged with arson, police said.
‘There is just not enough accommodation’
Chair of the Coen Regional Aboriginal Corporation, Dion Creek, said the town had struggled to handle the influx of people.
“We’ve got 20 to 40 people living in one household sharing a single toilet facility and a single bathroom,” Mr Creek said.
“It’s going to have huge implications on people’s health and wellbeing if the housing situation or immediate accommodation for these people who have lost everything isn’t sorted out as soon as possible.”
Coen store owner and publican Barry Mulley said he had seen up to 20 people sleeping on the verandas of their relative’s homes.
“There’s just not enough accommodation there for them,” Mr Mulley said.
Mr Mulley said adding more than 130 people to the population of Coen — usually home to around 360 people — has had a huge impact on the town.
“Both the shops in town are getting thrashed with the extra mouths to feed so it’s putting a lot of pressure on them,” he said.
“It’s mainly meat, breakfast cereals, bread and all the essentials that are getting smashed, even toilet paper.”
Mr Mulley travelled more than 550 kilometres to Cairns with a six-metre-long trailer that he intended to fill and return to the town before monsoonal rains cut roads in the region, which would force the town to rely on air-dropped supplies.
He said it was a race against time to both stock the town with enough food for the wet season and to feed the swollen population.
“One truck came yesterday with a load of food for the town and another truck I believe is due to come into town next week, but as soon as the roads close that’ll be it,” he said.
Government departments working to help refugees
The Queensland Government has appointed former Aurukun Shire Council chief executive officer Gary Kleidon to coordinate a government response to the situation.
A spokesperson for the State Government said staff from Queensland Health and the Department of Housing and Public Works had been assisting in Coen.
The chief executive of the Torres and Cape Hospital and Health Service, Bev Hamerton, said Coen’s population growth posed the risk of overcrowding the town.
“Additional displaced people from Aurukun are expected to further swell those numbers in the coming days as the existing displaced persons’ camp at Aurukun gradually empties,” Ms Hamerton said.
“As a precaution, we have sent an additional senior clinical nurse to Coen to support our clinic staff there and have ensured the clinic is adequately stocked with medications and clinical supplies.”
Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt said in a statement he was “deeply concerned by the ongoing situation in Aurukun”.
“The Queensland Government is leading the response and the Australian Government is supporting their efforts,” he said.
“We made $10,000 available to Kapani Warrior to assist with the immediate support required.
“Further practical support has included working with Services Australia to help affected individuals to apply for crisis payments where eligibility exists and liaising with local employers whose staff have been displaced.”
He said staff from the National Indigenous Australians Agency (NIAA) have travelled to Aurukun to work with representatives from Queensland Government departments and agencies.