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Torres Strait Islander lawyer battling for culture and recognition

Rachael Knowles -

A force to be reckoned with, Sasha Purcell is fighting for the rights of Torres Strait Islanders in the face of climate change.

With a strong passion for advancing Indigenous human rights, Purcell is a human rights lawyer and a descendant of the Whaleboat family, whose ancestral home is Mer Island in the Torres Strait.

In 2009, Purcell graduated with a Bachelor of International Relations from Griffith University. She later got her Bachelor of Laws and Graduate Diploma of Legal Practice from the Queensland University of Technology.

Being a young, female Torres Strait Islander, Purcell brings a unique edge to her career.

"I am Torres Strait Islander, so I am a minority within a minority. I am able to communicate with people on a lot of different levels. That is something that can't be taught in law school," she said.

Despite her success, Purcell has faced adversity and ignorance.

"Lawyers assume I'm going to be a pushover because I am a woman ... I don't know why anyone would think I would be any less of a lawyer because I'm female or Indigenous," she said.

"I've had people try and put me in my place, or what they thought my place was. I've never stood for it."

This year Purcell has been completing her PhD which examines climate change in the Torres Strait as well as undertaking consulting work with the University of Queensland in the criminal justice space.

Purcell is a Fulbright Scholar, she received the American Australian Association Aurora Scholarship and is the 2020 Roberta Sykes Scholar. Purcell will also undertake a Master of Laws at New York University (NYU) which will see her become an NYU Human Rights Scholar and push her forward in becoming an expert in Indigenous Human Rights.

Recently, the young lawyer visited Mer Island to present her PhD to community.

"Cultural protocol dictates that you need to get approval from the community members and the leader of the Torres Strait to do research there so I took my PhD proposal to the Torres Strait Islander Regional Council," she said.

"I chose that topic because it directly relates to where I'm from and because Indigenous populations are most impacted by climate change, yet they contribute the least to the causes of climate change. To me, that is an injustice."

Purcell has immense passion for her research and what it means for her community.

"The loss of an island is not just a loss of physical location; it is the loss of belonging. It is a loss of cultural bond, of spiritual connection because we are connected culturally to the land and the sea," she said.

"It is part of what Torres Strait Islanders are. Slowly but surely it will be the loss of traditional life for Torres Strait Islander people if we don't do something soon.

"I talk to Elders and they always tell me that they will not leave the Torres Strait. They will not disappear into the sea and they will not leave the island â€" they will die with the islands."

Currently there is a lawsuit against the Australian Federal Government for neglecting their legal responsibility to human rights.

"The Government said they haven't done anything as it's future concern ... that is not accurate. This has been an issue for 50-plus years ... publications have been out since 1992 around climate change impacts on the Torres Strait. This is not a future concern, it is a concern happening now, and it has already happened," she said.

"Islanders are warrior people; strong, independent fighters. There was no way we were going to accept that as an answer."

Sasha Purcell at the United Nations with Torres Strait flag. Photo supplied.

Purcell noted her frustration at the lack of accountability or engagement with Torres Strait Islander peoples.

"We are always overlooked; we are a minority within a minority. There is no visibility, there is very little consultation with Torres Strait Islanders, you can't see us in the policy, you can't see us in the dialogue, you can't see us in the rhetoric, we just aren't there. We are the afterthought," she said.

"We are not a homogenous group, we have our own languages, our own culture, our own history.

"The Australian Federal Government needs to acknowledge that they are responsible for the Torres Strait Islands and what happens to them in relation to climate change.

"They have contributed to climate change ... not partaking properly in the Kyoto Protocol or the Paris Agreement. They need to acknowledge these failings, then move along from that to listen to Indigenous community, listen to leaders and ask what they need to provide them the resources to fight climate change."

A warrior for culture, Purcell is leading the way and raising the voices of the Torres Strait to the forefront â€" where they can't be ignored.

"That is what I do it for, I don't do it for any other reason expect to advance Torres Strait Islander human rights issues."

By Rachael Knowles


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