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Thursday, 31 May 1984
Page: 2217

Senator MARTIN(12.06) -There is one other specific matter I want to raise, the place of women in our refugee scheme. I raise it separately because it is an issue on which I wish to say a few words. I have raised it in the past, not only in the Senate but also when I was a member of the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence, which investigated the community refugee settlement scheme. This matter is particularly pointed in the case of the Khmers. A large number of the Khmer population was wiped out under the Pol Pot regime. Necessarily in that sort of situation-where there is a war in the country, with, in that case, occupying Vietnamese troops; where a lot of people flee; and where a guerrilla situation develops as a number of the population fight the occupying army-one always has an overwhelming preponderance of women and children amongst the refugees.

The case of the Khmers is particularly pointed because under the Pol Pot regime families were split up and a lot of people died. After the Vietnamese invaded Kampuchea and expelled the Khmer Rouge to all intents and purposes, there was a very long period when families tried to find one another, when husbands and wives searched for one another and when parents searched for children. This raised difficulties at the time in relation to the unaccompanied minors that I have been referring to. It was very difficult to know whether children were actually orphans or whether somewhere there was a parent or both parents with whom they might be reunited. The exercise of reunification or identification of whether there were members of the family with whom refugees might be reunited has, to all intents and purposes, been completed. People now tend to know where members of their families are and whether they are still alive.

The women and children are still in overwhelming numbers in these refugee camps . Excluding those women and children whose husbands and fathers might be guerrillas somewhere in Kampuchea, we have an enormous residue of women who, I feel, are being excluded from consideration in our refugee program. I think figures would show that our refugee program from Indo-China is overwhelmingly Vietnamese in nature and that that group is probably overwhelmingly of Chinese origin- but that is another matter. We do not take many Khmer or Lao refugees. Because of that, Thailand in particular is being left with a very real residual problem about which I think we could be doing a lot more. It is more expensive to bring into the country a family which has no skilled head of the household- skilled in the sense that we accept skills-other than growing rice or doing all the many things that require a high degree of skill to keep house in Kampuchea. These women, particularly if they have dependents, I think have been looked on as a liability. The operation of the scheme has been very much against them.

As I said, I did raise that question when I was on the Senate Committee and we were talking to organisations that were involved in the Community refugee settlement scheme. We were given some indication by some of the groups that they certainly did see these refugees-that is, women and children, as the family-as a priority group. They recognised it was difficult to meet the needs of this group but one about which something should be done. However, not very many have come in. They are considered to be special cases. I hesitate to say it but I fear it has become tokenism. In terms of solving the very real problems that these women have, it is not a real effort.

The women and children are at enormous risk in these camps. They do not have men to protect them. Soldiers and all the unsavoury aspects of refugee camps surround them. As far as the people around them know, the refugees do not have anyone who cares whether they live or die, much less what happens to them while they are alive or how they die. They are a very vulnerable group and a group which should be placed on a high priority for assistance. Some of my questions that are on notice will raise that. I rise at this stage to say that I am concerned that Australia is contributing to the creation of a residual pool of refugees, who no one is going to want, one of the reasons being the length of time they have been in a refugee camp. I would like the Government to examine the procedures for selecting refugees from that part of the world for Australia, to look at the implications of deliberately taking more of these women and children and at the sorts of programs that it should support. We should not just handle the occasional case as we have so far when certain voluntary groups have undertaken this challenge.