Image: Joseph Passi and partner Ayesha with their children at the donga they rent in the Torres Strait. (AARON BUNCH)

The Torres Strait Islands are like a tropical paradise to outsiders but for many traditional owners it has more in common with a failed state as they struggle to survive amid the soaring cost of living.

Indigenous families are being forced to leave their archipelago homes in Queensland’s north because of a lack of affordable housing and “extortionate” food prices that are impacting physical and mental health.

“This region has a high dependence on social security, yet the cost of living is way beyond what you see in mainland urban areas,” Aleita Twist, chief executive of Mura Kosker Sorority social service group, told AAP.

“With large families and overcrowded housing, or poor access to housing, it’s not a happy environment for people to continue to be able to stay in the region.”

Basic supermarket items, which are often far from fresh by the time they hit the shelves, such as fruit and vegetables, milk and eggs, are about 20 to 40 per cent more expensive than average mainland prices.

Shoppers also pay considerably more for electrical goods, furniture and luxury food, such as savoury and sweet snacks, and fuel is about 25 per cent more expensive.

“We’re paying $7 for a loaf of bread. You can get one for $2 in Cairns. That’s the staple food that fill kid’s bellies but if you have five kids and you need two loaves a day for lunches it’s not sustainable,” Ms Twist said.

“We know it’s expensive down south too but up here we haven’t got a choice, we have to take what is given to us because the suppliers operate in a near monopoly.”

The housing problem is worst on tiny Thursday Island, the region’s administrative centre, where dozens of state and federal government departments employing “expatriate” mainland workers are outbidding locals trying to buy and rent properties.

“Government swoops in and they pay whatever price is necessary and locals just can’t afford it,” Ms Twist said.

“An example is $1800 per week for a three-bedroom house, only government can afford that.”

Public housing is also in short supply, with several traditional owners, including Joseph Passi, saying they have been on waiting lists for more than a decade.

“I applied when I turned 18 and I’m still waiting,” Mr Passi, 33, said.

The council pool manager lives in a tiny three-room donga next to the shire depot with his partner and three children. 

As tough as it is, Mr Passi said it was a step up from the previous seven years when the family was homeless and lived in overcrowded houses with relatives or in hostels.

“The whole system is messed up, it’s a struggle within a struggle,” he said of the islands’ housing market.

“People are getting forced down south, Cairns, Townsville, wherever.”

Motel housekeeper Johanna Sabatino-Garnier, 28, lives in temporary accommodation on neighbouring Hammond Island with her two sons and catches a ferry to and from Thursday Island for work.

“It’s pretty tough and a struggle as a single parent,” she said.

“The ferry, fuel prices are going up now so we fish and buy the cheaper brands to help us get through, but the drag week before I get paid can be a real stress.”

Torres Strait Regional Authority chair Napau Pedro Stephen said a two-tier economy had been created by the remote area allowances paid to attract skilled workers to the region.

“It’s lopsided with haves and have-nots,” he said.

He likened the situation to the pearl boom in the late-1800s when outsiders exploited the region but shared little of the profit with traditional owners.

“Everybody who has benefited from the cream here, they are not from here,” he said.

The complicated system of land tenure also needed to be unravelled so more local families could buy land and homes and build wealth, instead of renting them generation after generation, he said.

The Queensland government has said it plans to hold a cost-of-living summit in the Torres Strait Islands to work out ways to reduce “astronomically high” food prices and deal with other problems islanders face.

A date for the summit has not been set.

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk last year acknowledged the issues.

“The cost of living pressures are probably three times that of what we’re seeing in the southeast of our state and something has to be done about that,” she said in September.

Torres Strait Island Regional Council chief executive James William said the high living costs and the lack of affordable housing were a symptom of successive government policies that failed to foster economic development for the benefit of traditional owners. 

He said the last “internationally significant” industry, pearling, collapsed in the 1950s and the profits it brought to the region hadn’t been replaced by newer industries, such as tourism and the rock lobster fishery.

“The funding model that government has typically delivered since, through the various tiers, has been subsistence at best,” he said.

Mr William said Torres Strait Islands, which has a population of about 7000 people living in “remote and ultra-remote” communities, were unlikely to be able to grow a sustainable economy without significant government support.

“They’re low-income, small-population communities with a strategic location that makes it the only local government area with an international border that has to manage local, state and international issues on a daily basis,” he said.

“It is in all of our interests that the region thrives and operates well.”

He said more government investment was needed to help create a circular economy that employs Torres Strait Islanders, who will in turn spend their wages in their communities to make them more economically sustainable.

“We’re still sourcing goods and services externally, we don’t have a robust healthy local economy capable of supplying the local population,” he said.

“As a consequence, everything we buy comes from outside the region and the price inflates as it travels through the supply chain due to the cost of transport and logistics.

“We’ve got to re-engineer this economy so it benefits the Torres Strait people.”

This AAP article was made possible by support from the Meta Australian News Fund and The Walkley Foundation.