By DARREN GRAY and FARAH FAROUQUEWe won't go: Kosovars
Monday 10 April 2000
About 180 of the remaining Kosovo refugees in Australia were declared illegal immigrants last night after they defied a Federal Government order to leave the country.
In an embarrassment for the Government, only 21 people at the Bandiana haven, near Wodonga, agreed to board a compulsory charter flight home yesterday.
Most of the adults at Bandiana started a hunger strike in the morning, vowing to continue without food until the Immigration Minister, Philip Ruddock, reversed his decision to send them home.
At least one other Kosovar, who was due to fly from Tasmania to Sydney yesterday afternoon, had fled his accommodation, Immigration Department officials revealed.
Last night, the Government was maintaining its hard line, saying the Kosovars refusing to leave were undermining Australia's generous response to the crisis and it was time for most of them to go home.
Australia had given a home to about 4000 Kosovo refugees for up to a year and had recently extended the stay of many of them, a spokesman for Mr Ruddock said.
"Unfortunately the response undermines what has been a very, very generous response from Australia to a humanitarian need. But it is obvious that it is time for most Kosovo Albanians to go home," he said.
A circular handed out by immigration officials at Bandiana "for clarification" warned the Kosovars that unless they were given permission to stay in Australia "you will be removed as soon as possible by the Department".
It added that after their visas expired "(anyone) who has not been given permission to remain for a further period will become an unlawful non-citizen in Australia".
The Bandiana Kosovars have been told they will be relocated as soon as possible to an immigration detention facility and will owe the Australian Government the costs of their detention and removal.
Among those participating in the Bandiana hunger strike were Kosovars awaiting the outcome of a High Court appeal due today. There are about 60 in this category in Victoria.
While the Government gave an undertaking to the court that the appellants would not be required to leave Australia until a decision was handed down, they were also declared illegal immigrants.
Mr Ruddock said yesterday he was confident no Kosovo Albanian refugees returned to their homeland would be singled out for persecution.
"I'm satisfied that they have no claims that would single them out over and above any other Kosovo Albanian for persecution," he said.
Mr Ruddock told Channel Ten's Meet The Press that he had extended the stay of more than 250 Kosovars still in Australia on either medical grounds or because they claimed they could be persecuted if they returned home.
Kosovars who defied the Government's order to go home lost a number of freedoms from midnight last night. Those aged over 12 lost a weekly living allowance of $27, while those under 12 lost a $10 weekly allowance. Access to computers and the Internet has been stopped and their movements are now restricted to the Bandiana army grounds while the Government decides where to house them.
Mr Ruddock's spokesman said he was not surprised by reports of a hunger strike. "This is not an unusual occurrence for people to tell us they'll go on a hunger strike in an attempt to put pressure on the Government to achieve their personal outcome," he said.
"In the past we have not responded to this sort of pressure and we are not proposing to respond to that sort of pressure in this case either."
The chairman of the Australian-Albanian National Council, Mr Eric Lloga, appealed to the Government to relent on its hard line on the Kosovars. "I hope some mercy, some humanity can prevail in relation to these people," he said.
Mr Lloga said while he was concerned about the hunger strike it was a desperate plea for help. "It's obviously very distressing for them. People who have gone through in the past year so much shouldn't have to go through this."
The Australian Democrats said the Government lacked decency and compassion.
The party's immigration spokesman, Senator Andrew Bartlett, said: "Australia is one of the few nations who assisted the Kosovars at the time of the war last year, who are now refusing to give them any opportunity to apply for other visas and give them some control over their own future."