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No end in sight: Aurukun struggling with violence

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Aurukun is no stranger to unrest but locals fear that issues in the community are at breaking point after a year of violence and sorry business.

“This is the worst it has ever been. Everyone just looks tired and on edge,” said a local health worker, who asked not to be named.

“There just doesn’t appear to be an end to it. As soon as things settle down there’s another incident and it fires up again.”

Attendance at the school has dwindled as a result of violence in the street and sleepless nights, while the council struggles to find staff for essential roles, meaning services such as the post office and community bank have been closed intermittently.

The council is also without a CEO, having recently accepted Ilario Sabatino’s resignation. He lasted just seven months, although it was longer than the previous CEO John Thomas, who spent 10 days in the role before resigning.

Queensland Police Service have thrown millions of dollars of resources into the community, with up to 50 officers in Aurukun for periods of time, but have been unable to get a grasp on the crime.

Residents are walking the streets with metal fence pickets and crossbows. Many locals are reluctant to leave their homes.

Queensland Health workers are operating under Code Black, meaning the clinic is open only for emergencies. Code Black signifies a threat to personal safety.

The clinic won’t send out the ambulance unless workers are escorted by police.

Apunipima is supposed to be the primary health provider in Aurukun, although locals often complain about the service, preferring the Queensland Health-backed clinic.

It’s been a tough month for the Torres and Cape Hospital and Health Service staff in the Western Cape community.

On November 6, two teenage boys allegedly tried to carjack an ambulance with two health workers inside. Two days later, nurses in a car were threatened with a hammer and had their vehicle stolen.

TCHHS executive general manager Ian Power said it was a distressing time for the staff.

“Staff at the Aurukun Primary Healthcare Centre are safe but distressed following an incident involving three members of staff on Tuesday afternoon,” he said.

“The incident involved the taking of a health service vehicle and follows a previous similar incident on Sunday.

“As the matters are now in the hands of police, we are unable to comment further.

“Counselling and support are being provided through our health service processes.”

Mr Power said staff were safe and services were continuing to be delivered within the clinic.

“Due to the unrest, routine community visits or outreach home visits from the primary healthcare centre are suspended until further notice but we are continuing to provide first response to emergency 000 calls with a police escort,” he said.

“Currently, we have 20 staff in Aurukun, including eight nursing staff, two health workers and administrative and operational staff.

“We are monitoring fatigue levels for our staff and have plans in place to relieve or remove staff if the situation so requires.

“We have extensive safety and security measures in place at all our facilities to protect staff.

“At Aurukun, this includes a security officer on duty each night between the hours of 5pm and 8am.

“However, due to the recent unrest, we have provided the Aurukun Primary Healthcare Centre with two extra security officers who are both on duty during the day, in addition to the night security officer, to provide added safety and assurance for staff.”

The escalating violence in Aurukun has resulted in Rio Tinto Weipa changing its policy around visits to the community. The bauxite miner has barely visited Aurukun this year.

Cape York Weekly attempted to speak with Aurukun mayor Keri Tamwoy and several councillors.

Several town meetings have been held in Aurukun to address the issues, although they are mostly attended by government service providers, rather than locals.

Police in the Cape have also expressed concern that violence in Aurukun is now escalating to other communities.

Several Aurukun residents have relocated to Napranum and violence has emerged in the town near Weipa.

“Aurukun has all of the police resources in the Cape and often draws them from places like Weipa when things escalate,” one officer said.

“Weipa isn’t a 24-hour station but it almost needs to be at the moment. We’re getting a lot of calls in the night for incidents in Napranum.”

Cape York has also been without a permanent police Inspector for 18 months. QPS has started the process to fill the role permanently.

Cape York Weeekly 15 November 2022

This article appeared in Cape York Weekly, 15 November 2022.

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