The Age
Let these people stay


Saturday 13 May 2000

On the SBS program Dateline on May 3, the United Nations representative in Kosovo was interviewed. He admitted that a civilised society did not exist in that place, and that the 3000 police of the 6000 he had requested found their task of enforcing law and order almost impossible. He said that it was impossible to provide adequately for the needs of the 180,000 Albanians returning to Kosovo - mostly to homes that no longer existed. Turning almost pleadingly to the host governments, including Australia, he said it was too dangerous and counterproductive to force refugees back at this stage and that, were it to be done eventually, it had to be "smoothly and quietly and with a common effort".

Understandably, public responses to Australia's involvement with the Kosovo situation have been largely overtaken by other events, but there is considerable value in a review of the matter. Similar outbursts of violence will occur in other places, and Australia may be called upon to respond. The experience gained from the Kosovo conflict could help refine future attitudes and responses, as well as determine our response to the present situation there.

The initial reaction by the Australian Government to the Kosovo situation was negative. Much as involvement in East Timor was forced by public opinion, so, too, with Kosovo. The painful clarity of this slowness became evident when, within hours of the recent violence in Zimbabwe, the Prime Minister held out the prospect of accepting white refugees from that unhappy country.

In all, 3919 Kosovars arrived in Australia in May and June last year. They were taken to all states except Queensland and housed in reception centres, or havens. Before their departure from Kosovo they had to sign a document saying they would not apply for refugee status in Australia. Common sense would dictate that any document signed under such circumstances lacked substance because it was signed under extreme duress. People do not normally flee from their homeland voluntarily. In that light, later criticism of them for their general reluctance to return needs rethinking. For many, it may have been more humane to leave them where they were, rather than hold out a temporary but blighted hope of a happier future.

Those refugees still in Australia last August were offered a reconstruction allowance of $3000 per adult and $500 per child to induce them to return to their devastated homeland by October 31. Such was their fear that, in all, 491 of the original arrivals refused to accept the offer, even though this meant that if they left after the cut off date they would receive no allowance. On September 18, the Immigration Minister, Philip Ruddock, visited Bandiana, which had become the main haven for refugees. He again delivered the oft-repeated ultimatum of departure by October 31. This created conflicts within families, with some members wanting to accept the allowance and go and others wanting to stay. In the end, the ultimatum and the allowance acted as a filter in sorting out those who were prepared to return despite their fears, and those who had grave and sound reasons for wishing to remain. Witnesses described the painful spectacle, in September and October, of those who remained farewelling those who departed.

The remaining Kosovars were further traumatised by being moved from their original reception centre to Bandiana. One report said that two teenagers took an overdose of tablets rather than face return. In many instances children, some of whom had witnessed the slaying of their loved ones and friends, were suffering from appalling nightmares.

At the time of writing one child of 14 still has to be accompanied by his father to the toilet after he wakes screaming in the night. The boy was alongside his best friend when he was shot dead.

Despite the difficulty of effectively using community support, the response of people living in the Albury-Wodonga area was, and remains, bountiful and determined. The Kosovars, their country and their sufferings will remain etched in the memory of those worthy people.

By January this year, medical and other care had been severely curtailed at Bandiana, legal aid was not available, distrust had begun to permeate the community, and an air of hopelessness prevailed. However, some Kosovars had found jobs, and many were making friends in the areas where they were held. Some still hoped that humanity would overcome the obstacles placed by the government and allow them to remain in Australia. A final decision on their fate was awaited with apprehension.

In late March a document was issued by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees advising asylum governments that most Kosovo Albanians "should be able to return home in safety". The Australian Government and the media chose to concentrate on the seeming carte blanche given for return, and ignored details in the statement about "individuals with protection needs" and "vulnerable groups". These, the UNHCR said, "could face serious problems, including physical danger, were they to return at this time".

Despite the advice of UNHCR and the fact, well known to the government through its advisers and agencies, that the greater part of the remaining Kosovars fell into these categories, the government decided to allow only 120 to submit claims for protection through the normal refugee process. Another 130 were provided with extended visas of one, two or three months on health grounds. The remainder, around 240, were refused further asylum.

Many of the Kosovars collapsed in distress when they were told they had to depart, yet the greatness of humanity was upheld by those who embraced and congratulated their friends who were told they could remain.

The other face of humanity was evident on two occasions. Mr Ruddock visited Bandiana and reminded those who were to go that they ought to count their blessings because the situation was worse in Ethiopia. A representative of the Albanian community also visited and begged the refugees to return "home with dignity". Perhaps he was temporarily unmindful of how little dignity some of the women felt they had retained. They had been pack raped and abused, many had lost relatives and friends, and their homes had been destroyed. Their happiness in domestic and civic dignity in a remote past before the atrocities and harassment practised for as long as 12 years by Serbs was irrevocably blighted by despair and misery.

As at Port Hedland and elsewhere, in places different to prisons only in that the inmates are frequently babies and children - some, indeed, born within their walls - hired guards came to Bandiana to do the work of the government.

Visitors were restricted, some forbidden, communication with outside was curtailed, and husbands and wives were separated to permit private harassment by officials intent on "persuading" people to depart peacefully. A general air of despair and disbelief was pervasive.

In the midst of this, 21 souls, described by one observer as "the saddest lot of people ever put together", were selected to go to Port Hedland because they would not return. Among them there was a family with five children under eight, one of them with a congenital hip ailment. Several others had legitimate health problems, including two elderly people with grave illnesses. We know little about those who remain there because free access is denied and meaningful information is withheld, except from those intent on proving they are well fed and kept in solitary confinement only when it is necessary "for their own safety".

About 250 of the original 3919 Kosovars remain in Australia today. More than half of them are threatened with immediate or short-term expulsion. None came here freely. All have good reasons to stay.

Why do they have to go? One answer is that other, would-be barrier breakers must be deterred by the severity of official banishment meted out to those already judged as transgressors. The other reason, lurking in the twilight zone of guilt, is that political expediency dictates such a way of action.

In any event, humanity seems to have little impact on this affair, and Chief Justice Murray based his ruling rejecting an attempt to stop repatriating 81 Kosovars on the lawfulness of Mr Ruddock's decision, not whether it was wise or humane.

Australia stands alone in forcing the Kosovars to return. The Americans have issued 20,000 precious Green Cards allowing them to remain, and Canada has said its number, about 4000, can all stay. Germany is not forcing those seeking asylum there to return. Meanwhile, Mr Ruddock takes his stand on the 250 who, he asserts, will deprive that number of "genuine" refugees of entry. At the stroke of a pen he could add 250 to the list of the "genuine" and settle a matter that many Australians will never forget.

The days of our shame in respect of the defenceless Kosovars stand on the record, but those of good will, which means the great majority of Australians, surely agree with the headline of April 14: "Let the Kosovars stay!"

Original article