Last Updated: Thursday, 23 November 2017, 12:01 GMT

World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Australia : South Sea Islanders

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 2008
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Australia : South Sea Islanders, 2008, available at: [accessed 23 November 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


Around 11,000 South Sea Islanders live in Australia, most around Mackay in north Queensland.

Historical context

Between 1863 and 1904 more than 55,000 Melanesians (then known as Kanakas) were recruited, mainly from the New Hebrides (Vanuatu) and Solomon Islands, to work in the cane fields of Queensland. After the end of the contract labour system most returned, but more than 2,000 remained in Australia, many around Mackay in north Queensland.

Descendants of these Melanesian migrants, who suffered less institutional discrimination than their parents, gained housing from the Aboriginal and Islander Advancement Corporation in the 1960s, but access to education was inadequate and South Sea Islanders became one of the poorest groups in Australia. Although white Australians regarded them as Aborigines, they were not eligible for the benefits given to Aborigines unless they denied their South Sea Islander origins, and do not have land rights like other indigenous Australians.

In 1977 a Royal Commission into Human Relationships recommended that they be given access to the same benefits that were available to Aborigines. By the 1990s, the 11,000 South Sea Islanders were disadvantaged in terms of such basic needs as home ownership, health, education and employment; the unemployment rate was 28.5 per cent, two and a half times the national average, and few were employed in skilled occupations. South Sea Islanders continued to experience the outcome of a history of exploitation and racial discrimination similar to that of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, but were unrecognized as a distinct group. A 1992 Inquiry by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission recommended that they be formally recognized as a distinct disadvantaged group, and that schemes comparable with those available to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders be made available to them. In 1994 the government accepted these recommendations and South Sea Islanders began to move towards a new future. While their cultural distinctiveness is recognised they have increasingly become absorbed into the wider community.

This recognition came later in Queensland, and it was only in July 2000 that the Queensland Government formally recognised South Sea Islanders as a distinct ethnic and cultural group and acknowledged their contribution to Queensland's development. The government also recognised the discrimination, injustice, disadvantage and prejudice experienced by Australian South Sea Islanders throughout history and the significant disadvantage the community still faces today

Current issues

There is a need for not only recognition of the Australian South Sea Islanders as a distinct cultural group but a real need to start implementing some positive changes to assist Australian South Sea Islanders (ASSI) in employment, services etc Since Federal Recognition in 1994 and Queensland recognition in 2000 there has been minimal change, and community workers are seeking funds allocated to allow 'area specific' ASSI agencies to hire Community Development workers to work specifically with ASSI people.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services have serviced ASSI in some areas for many years, but Islanders are seeking government resources to meet the needs of ASSI and allow them to have appropriate service without prejudice.

Over the past decade, there have also been efforts to establish links with relatives in Vanuatu, New Caledonia and Solomon Islands, as many of the ASSI community

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