Guards move in as Australia's Kosovars defy return

SYDNEY, Apr 10, 2000 -- (Reuters) Security guards sealed off an Australian detention camp on Monday after around 170 Kosovo refugees, some on hunger strike, refused to return home and were declared illegal immigrants.

About half of the 501 Kosovo refugees in Australia had been due to return to the Yugoslav province after their temporary safe-haven visas expired at midnight (1400) GMT on Sunday.

Of those due to leave, only about 50 Kosovo refugees voluntarily boarded a flight late on Sunday bound for the Bulgarian capital of Sofia via Colombo.

About 170 refugees refused to board buses on Sunday at the Bandiana Army Base near the border of New South Wales and Victoria states. Some began a hunger strike.

The Bandiana camp was declared a temporary detention center and guards moved in immediately after the refugees' visas' expired, an Immigration Department official said.

It was unclear if the security guards, who were from a private firm, were armed.

Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock said the Bandiana refugees might be moved to detention centers used to house illegal immigrants - usually boatpeople from the Middle East and China - in remote areas of Western Australia or South Australia.

They would then be sent home as soon as possible, he said.

"Removal could involve having to supervise people to aircraft and supervising them on the way home," Ruddock told reporters.

"I'll make a decision on where they will be detained, it depends on logistic arrangements."

Such arrangements included negotiations with the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the availability of flights, Ruddock said.


Refugees in the Bandiana camp warned immigration officials would have to use force to make them leave.

"None of us here is getting on a bus," refugee Ali Jahiu said. "Only if they use force, we don't have a choice."

He said some in the group were still refusing food and water.

Immigration officials said a family of four Kosovo refugees had been arrested in Tasmania state on Monday. Another 10 - nine in New South Wales and one in Tasmania - were missing.

Australia took in about 4,000 ethnic Albanian refugees in May as part of an international relief effort after Serb forces tried to clear Kosovo of ethnic Albanians. Around 3,500 have returned home since December.

The UNHCR has declared that apart from witnesses to Serb atrocities or those whose homes were in areas dominated by Serbs, it is safe for the ethnic Albanians to return home.

Ruddock has said he is convinced that all those due to return could do so without fear. About 110 among the group of 501 refugees were allowed to apply to extend their visas and a similar number were allowed to remain for medical treatment.

Another group of 81 refugees were awaiting a decision by Australia's High Court later on Monday on whether they could stay after applying for an injunction against the order to leave.

Original article