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Monday, 29 May 2000
Page: 16431

Mr DANBY (4:12 PM) —Today I grieve for the Kosovo refugees—especially for the last 150 or so who were so heartlessly sent back to Kosovo, and for those who remain here with deportation dates looming over their heads. I was the co-patron of the Bandiana Safe Haven until it was turned into a detention centre. I requested this position soon after the Kosovars first arrived here—with the government belatedly agreeing after there was an outcry demanding it be so—as I wanted to be part of the process which welcomed these people to our country and provided them with a sense of safety and security, particularly the children who had not known such before. Many members will agree that we succeeded with the 4½ thousand people whom we took.

Many members will remember the sight of the Prime Minister on national television welcoming these people as they arrived. Their manner of leaving was not so public. These refugees felt safe and secure in Australia. Many learned English; I gave the children written English certificates. Others gained quality jobs in their local communities, particularly in the community of Albury-Wodonga, and forged a significant and warm relationship with their communities.

Let me return to those crucial days before the remaining Kosovars were forced—or, as I say, given an offer they could not refuse—by the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs to leave Bandiana. In selling the so-called necessity for the remaining Kosovars to leave Australia, the minister for immigration repeatedly used as a crutch a statement by the UNHCR in Canberra that it was `safe' for these evacuees to return to that part of the world.

It emerged in the course of those two weeks that in fact half of those people were not indeed from Kosovo but from Presevo in southern Serbia, which was literally still occupied by Yugoslav tanks. On the Wednesday night before the weekend of their deportation, the 7.30 Report interviewed the representatives of the UNHCR, the refugee organisation and the international migration organisation in Pristina. They said the exact opposite of the minister's claims. They said that it was not safe for these evacuees whom Australia had taken into its arms to be returned to that place. They said that they were absolutely opposed to these people being forcibly returned against their will

Mr Deputy Speaker, you will remember that our Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade at the time was issuing a travel advisory that said it was too dangerous for Australians to travel to Kosovo. Another fact that particularly galls me is that one of the reasons the government apparently urgently needed the Kosovars to leave Bandiana was simply to enable the refurbishment of that Army camp for the arrival of the Ukrainian national Olympic team. It seems ironic that we inhumanely forced people out of the facility and into a place of ongoing conflict in order to house people representing the ideals of peace and community spirit in the Olympic Games.

I am not the only one to be so grieved by this event. The people of Albury-Wodonga in particular who had taken these refugees into their hearts, and often into their homes and businesses, were naturally also shocked and grieved by what happened to these people whom they had come to call friends. They watched as the government dispassionately and stubbornly refused to listen to the evidence from people on the ground in many parts of Kosovo that it was, and still is, unsafe. They watched the government dodge and distance itself from the pleas of these evacuees. These are people whom Australia spent $100 million on looking after in this country. We urged them to come here and, in the end, we treated them so shabbily.

They watched the government act in accordance with the strict letter of the law rather than with humanity and flexibility. Unfortunately, they also watched as their Kosovar friends were forced onto buses, transferred to planes, then forced onto buses again and dumped in six different parts of Kosovo and left to fend for themselves. These people were not even allowed to change their money—the pathetic $50 that they had managed to earn working in their local communities. No bank in Pristina changes Australian money. It is monopoly money in Pristina. So they had no money even of their own to buy food or to get accommodation. Remember that these people, unlike some of the other Kosovar refugees, do not come from that part of the troubled region. Some did not have any family or friends to go to and, therefore, had no accommodation.

We now know that many of the refugees returned home and some of them found their homes destroyed; others had lost everything. Some of you will also have seen the 60 Minutes program where Richard Carleton stood with a couple of these people in Presevo in southern Serbia, looking at their homes occupied by Yugoslav tanks. They were crying with him, wishing that they could return. We just dumped them there. We just put them on a plane to Skopje and did not give them any money or food or even alert the international aid agencies that they were coming. Most sadly, we have also seen reports that as many as nine Kosovars who were sent back from Australia have disappeared. I hope the minister is looking into their whereabouts.

Further, the minister for immigration conferred the alleged right on these refugees to apply for residency under the special assistance program when they returned to Kosovo. This seems particularly farcical, considering the fact that many of these refugees do not have a permanent address. They have no indication of when an Australian immigration official might arrive there or how they might be contacted. We returned these people, this last group of evacuees, in particular the people from Presevo and southern Serbia, to a place many of them did not come from, to homes they did not have, without any money and without even informing the aid agencies. This is not the greatest chapter in Australia's care for refugees, its immigration program and, in particular, the generally high standard with which Australia treated most of the Kosovar refugees during the 11 months they were here.

By contrast to the government, the behaviour of the staff at the Bandiana Safe Haven throughout the 11 months the refugees were there was commendable. The two ADF officers who looked after the refugees, in particular Major Mark Shanks, who had the terrible duty as a reserve officer of emptying the camp of all of these people who were physically afraid for their lives on returning, did a wonderful job. Mr Eric Longa of the Australian Albanian community, who sat on the plane with these people and went back with them, unlike any Australian department of immigration official, is also owed great tribute. The broadcast of his description of how he was taking people to police stations, how he was feeding people with his own money, how he was trying to take them to aid agencies who had not been advised that these people would arrive, was one of Melbourne's 744 ABC radio's most dramatic broadcasts, and they received many requests for that program.

The people of Albury-Wodonga, I feel, will not forget how this government shabbily treated these wretched 150 people. I understand that with any immigration policy the Australian government has to stick to an agreed policy, and the majority of the Kosovar evacuees—4,000—were returned with their approval to homes that they did have. But the treatment of the last 150 was absolutely unnecessary and is a black mark on Australia's reputation. I hope that, when the Beazley government is elected, we will make sure that an Australian immigration department official goes to Kosovo to seek out these people and see that the shameful treatment that they received at our hands is not repeated and that they are brought back to Australia. Many of them will have jobs. I know in the Albury-Wodonga community there are people crying out for mechanics and skilled people, which many of these Kosovars were. They are looking forward to welcoming them back into the Australian community. The opposition will take these people with great seriousness—unlike this government, which, in my view, ended off a $100 million program in a way that brought disgrace to the name of our nation.