Aborigines seek restitution for Australia policy of 'genocide': Indigenous families broken up to encourage 'assimilation' are forcing Canberra to confront its past, writes Robert Milliken in Sydney

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MARIE ALLEN, one of Australia's 'stolen generation' of Aborigines who were taken from their mothers as children, yesterday described her heartbreaking search for her origins: 'An uncle and my grandfather sat down with me in the last couple of months and told me where I came from and which area is traditionally mine. It's been a long, sad process.'

Ms Allen has joined more than 500 Aborigines with similar backgrounds at a conference in Darwin, which will end today by alleging that previous Australian government policies of breaking up Aboriginal families for 'assimilation' constituted genocide and breached United Nations conventions. The Aborigines will also launch test cases against Canberra, seeking compensation over the impact of these policies on their lives, including the loss of family and cultural association. If the cases are successful, they could trigger a flood of litigation.

Although she is now a successful bureaucrat, as chairwoman of a Northern Territory regional office of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, Ms Allen grew up without knowing who her parents were. She had been taken from them as a child, under policies which decreed that mixed-race, or 'half caste', infants should be removed from their Aboriginal mothers and placed in mission homes to learn to grow up as Anglo-Saxon Australians. This discredited policy had its origins in 19th-century colonial Australia, and in the social Darwinian philosophy that the Aboriginal race should be officially encouraged to die out, by merging the mixed-race people with whites.

The policy lasted until the 1960s, by which time an estimated 100,000 young Aborigines had been dislocated from their families. Personal accounts of the traumas from such policies have been portrayed in documentary films and books in recent years. But the conference convened on Monday by those who now call themselves the 'stolen generation' was the first of its kind, in which the victims have forced the rest of Australia to confront its past mistakes. In the International Year of the Family, the driving force for the 'Going Home' conference came mainly from Aboriginal women, and its participants included victims aged from 30 to 80.

'This is a chapter of history that has existed in every Australian suburb, but which has never been opened up,' said Jacqui Katona, 29, an organiser. She spoke on behalf of her mother, who does not know her age because she was raised in a Baptist home in Darwin where her past was obliterated. 'Children such as my mother were told to forget about being Aboriginal, that it wasn't an acceptable identity in Australian society and that it wasn't an issue any more,' Ms Katona said.

'Some children reacted quite aggressively to being told these things. They were rejected by foster parents and thrown into institutions, hundreds of miles away, so that they could find no links with their own communities. The authorities became more sophisticated as time went on, carrying on the genocidal practices that the colonials brought with them,' she added.

Lawyers for the Aborigines are preparing a case that highlights the UN Convention on Genocide, adopted by Australia in 1949, which includes as a definition, 'forcibly transferring children' from one ethnic, racial or religious group to another. They will argue Australian governments breached their fiduciary duty to Aboriginal children.

The Aborigines also maintain that, because most of them are unable to identify ties to traditional land, they have been rendered ineligible for benefits under historic native title legislation, that the Australian parliament passed last year. 'This is the beginning of a long process for us,' Ms Katona said.

(Photograph omitted)