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Monday, 21 June 1999
Page: 5830

Senator TIERNEY (11:17 PM) —I rise tonight to speak about the situation in the Kosovo Safe Haven Program in Australia. Particularly this week we have seen on the news the terrible situation these people have fled from. As NATO forces go in, it is safe for reporters to go back in, and they film the carnage and destruction that the Yugoslav forces have wrought upon Kosovo. The heart of the Australian people has gone out to the Kosovo refugees who have come into this country and into a number of safe havens. I think Australia is to be commended on its effort in this area. We are now undertaking a program of 4,000 refugee settlements during the time in which they have to stay away from Kosovo. Per capita, that is five times the effort of the United States.

There has been an excellent combination of pulling together by various groups in the community, government, the Department of Defence, the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs and community groups and individuals who have given so generously to this program. I am the patron for the safe haven at Singleton, and the effort of the people in the Hunter Valley has been overwhelming in supporting the people in this safe haven. On an individual perspective, people like Betty Thompson, President of the Singleton Quilters Guild, and her team, and the CWA Association of Singleton, Branxton-Greta, Lower Belford and Jerrys Plains, led by Betty Irons, provided for the Singleton safe haven things like quilts, bikes, oil heaters, kids' slippery slides and trauma teddies, to make the comfort of those people as good as they possibly can. The government is spending resources at Singleton to rapidly upgrade the facilities. Heating has gone into what were basic army barracks, partitions are going in and carpets are going in, and the whole place is being made quite comfortable.

The vast majority of refugees who are at the Singleton safe haven are incredibly grateful to the Australian people for the efforts that they have put into this program. Therefore it is unfortunate that there was an incident last week which initially involved 80 people but quickly came down to one family. The sad thing about the incident, I suppose, is that it has tended to have an effect on the attitude of the Australian people towards this program. But they should not judge the overall gratitude of the people who have come out from Kosovo by the actions of a few.

It started with six men on the bus trip from Sydney. They did stop off for lunch and they hatched this plan that the 80 would stay on the bus. We should understand that they are coming from a very patriarchal society, and what these six leading men said actually went and people did follow what they said. So we had a sit-in on the bus. But by the start of the second night, families, as they needed to leave the buses to go to the facilities in the camp, just did not come back. As the night went on, they all slowly melted away, got the keys and went to their rooms, except one family. This was the Salihu family, led by Sabit, the son. He stayed on the bus for yet another night.

The matter was resolved when the police read the doctor's report on his aged mother, which showed that she had suspected pneumonia in the left lung. On that basis, the police then drove the bus to Singleton District Hospital and the mother was examined by doctors. She was found not to have pneumonia but to have a number of conditions which in normal circumstances would mean that they would be treated from home. I really take my hat off to Singleton District Hospital for the generosity of their treatment of this family. They were prepared to admit the mother for treatment. They were prepared to put up the entire family in a private facility they had. They were prepared to give them an area that had a room leading off onto a verandah, en suite facilities and a kitchen—far better than anyone else had in the entire program. This was the generosity of Singleton District Hospital.

After several hours of negotiation when this agreement was made at the hospital, I took Sabit to this facility and said to him, `Well, this is just what you wanted for your mother.' He said through an interpreter, `No, no—not it; don't want that.' He was absolutely determined to get back to East Hills initially, where he came in, and then eventually back to Europe.

What people must understand is that people in this program are here on open visas for three months. Just like tourists, they can move around. We have no power of restraint. When they wanted to leave the hospital, we had no power to restrain them from doing that, even though this might not have been wise in terms of the health of the mother. He did leave the hospital and went to the railway station, where he waited for a train. It was reported by the people who took the cab fare and the station fare that he had plenty of money with him. He bought his ticket and was on the station ready to go. Of course there was an enormous amount of press around at this point. Then, to our absolute amazement, the Australian newspaper turned up with a large taxi, a kombivan type taxi, loaded the family on board and took them to Sydney.

I have made some comment about the actions of the Australian which I would like to put on the record here tonight because I feel that they acted unethically and that they crossed a very vital line. The role of newspapers and journalists is to report the news, to comment upon the news and to interpret the news, not to make the news. That is precisely what the Australian did by that action. We have currently a Senate inquiry into codes of practice in the information industry. The Press Council is one of the things that we are examining. It is something that I am going to refer to the committee because I believe that the powers of the Press Council are probably inadequate to deal with those sorts of actions.

The family went back to East Hills. They are waiting there and we now have the clearances internationally for them to return to Europe. That will happen in the very near future. The minister, Philip Ruddock, came up on Sunday and looked through the facilities. He spent several hours there. I went through with him. We went through several rooms and through the dining rooms, and we spoke to quite a number of the people. As we were walking around the camp I came across three of the six from the team they had on the bus who were leading negotiations on their behalf. I asked them yesterday, through an interpreter, how things were going. They were quite happy. When they had come into the camp and had been on the bus, they were right up one end of the camp and they had not really seen the camp. They had not experienced the facilities. After several days they were quite happy with their arrangements. We have now resolved that major incident that I mentioned.

I put this on the record tonight because I really do not want the Australian people to judge the program, which involves 4,000 people, by the actions of one man who may have soured the taste of some of the very generous people in Australia who have given great time, effort and resources to support people who have come from a terribly traumatic situation and conditions which we can only imagine. We have had, from the Australian people, enormous generosity. Tonight I would like to pay special tribute to that generosity.