Forgotten Violence against Backpackers in Australia

Author: Esther R. Anderson, a doctoral candidate and sessional lecturer in anthropology at the University of Southern Queensland, Australia. Her PhD research explores how working holidaymakers conducting seasonal agricultural labour in regional Australia encounter senses of place and feelings of community. She is also interested in the methodological implications of fieldwork ‘at home’, ethnobotany, and outer space. You can read more of Esther’s work at her blog, or follow her on Twitter.

In Australia, media representation of backpackers (young, mobile international tourists who often undertake casual or seasonal labour) reinforces specific representational politics that perpetuate harmful stereotypes. When violence against backpackers occurs, the presence of such stereotypes insures that systemic socioeconomic vulnerabilities that contribute to backpackers’ likelihood of exposure to risk and danger are ignored. As Sarah Horton and Seth M. Holmes’ point out in regard to migrant farmworkers in the United States, the pliable anthropological concept of structural violence, along with issues of complicity and social responsibility, can be applied to better understand how atrocities such as violence against backpackers continue to happen.

Salt Creek

In February 2016, then-23-year-old backpackers Lena (Germany) and Beatriz (Brazil) were attacked by 59-year old Roman Heinze at Salt Creek in remote South Australia. Heinz had responded to the young women’s Gumtree ad in search of a lift to Melbourne; instead, he drove them to an isolated beach against their will, where he proceeded to sexually and physically assault the pair.

In May 2017, Heinz was found guilty of six charges including indecent assault, aggravated kidnapping and endangering life. He was sentenced to 22 years jail including a 17 year non-parole period. In an interview with 60 Minutes, Lena and Beatriz shared their story and the resulting psychological trauma. The incident was described as a story of the pair’s “incredible strength and bravery”. Paternalistic journalism applauded their quick thinking in the face of terror, implying that cleverness is a predictor of fate. Ultimately, the interview subtly played into the image of the naïve backpacker whose unconscious missteps lead them into a dangerous situation.

‘In the wrong place, at the wrong time’?

This story, like many others, has already been absorbed into the forgotten history of terrible things that have happened to backpackers in this country. For instance, from 1989-1993, Ivan Milat murdered five international backpackers and two Australian tourists. The killing spree has since been mythologised to the point of unreality, inspiring the film Wolf Creek and a dramatised mini-series. Milat’s name and the Belanglo State Forest are embedded in the Australian psyche as synonymous for murder and horror, used as a cautionary tale about the perils of hitchhiking. Then, in 2001, British backpackers Peter Falconio and Johanna Lees were attacked in the Northern Territory by Bradley John Murdoch, who flagged down the couple’s vehicle claiming he noticed engine trouble. Lees escaped, but Falconio disappeared. The subsequent trial revealed that he had been murdered by Murdoch.. More recently, a 19-year-old female German backpacker was held captive and sexually assaulted in 2013 by 48-year-old man in Cottonvale, Queensland. The man had advertised work on a backpacker job board, while conspiring to drug the woman shortly after her arrival. Last year, a 24-year-old Belgian backpacker was kidnapped and assaulted by a 52-year-old man near Murray Bridge, South Australia. The young woman had reportedly posted an ad online looking for work, which was answered by her future captor.

There are many more stories just like this to list, and many young people who have returned home with new identities; taking on the role of resilient survivor, or a person labelled as being ‘in the wrong place, at the wrong time’. Of course, there are those whose lives ended in Australia, and they were unable to tell their stories. Their memories should not become lost. Their legacies should instead form a commitment to redressing the national ignorance that ultimately absolves their attackers.

Structural violence and accountability

Part of this redress involves attending to the social and economic conditions produced by temporary labour programs, which allow all-too-frequent violence against backpackers. As a socially isolated population of transient migrants, backpackers often have few connections to anyone outside of their own communities. Compared to permanent citizens and Australian residents, backpackers have less access to the safety nets associated with citizenship.

Backpackers often take on ‘survival jobs’ to earn money, which leads them to seek out precarious and unregulated employment. Most seasonal agricultural labour in Australia is conducted by backpackers and temporary migrants – this is a requirement of most visa schemes. For those existing under programs that allow freedom of movement beyond a single, sponsored employer, there is no way to confirm the legitimacy of any advertised ‘work’.

Backpackers do not always have access to their own transport – they cannot afford it. A need to outsource travel can place backpackers in uncertain situations. It is also not possible to identify how many backpackers are in a particular location at any given time, creating further implications for safety.

In 2016, there were 131,557 total working holidaymakers in Australia. Tourism Research Australia estimates that backpackers spent $3,636,385 in Australia last financial year. While backpackers extensively contribute to the national economy as tourists and workers, they are only here on a short-term basis. Being temporary non-citizens, there is less emotional investment into backpackers’ wellbeing and security. It is important to evaluate whether national policy overlooks (or even supports) the ongoing pattern of violence against backpackers because their presence benefits the national economy, and because they intend to return to their home countries.

Beyond Wolf Creek, the documentary

Salt Creek is, then, no ‘real life Wolf Creek’, but indicative of a long and troubling history. These incidents should be a call-to-arms to look out for an at-risk population. The notion of Australia as ‘unsafe’ for backpackers needs to be seen in terms of social and systemic problems, and the issues need to be met with positive change. In the meantime, there will undoubtedly be more incidents of violence against backpackers. These stories will cycle through regional and national news headlines, before fading away again. This cycle, if it is not scrutinised more carefully, will pave the way for more would-be perpetrators to take advantage of a collective ability to forget and a willingness to be complicit.

[Image by Esther Anderson]

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