Government fails again on refugees

May 12, 1999

The Howard government is bringing up to 4000 Kosovar refugees temporarily to Australia. The government has not provided significant aid to help the refugees to stay in areas near Kosova. It will not allow the refugees to apply for permanent residency in Australia either. The Kosovar refugees will be homeless, waiting until the Australian government deems the "the situation on the ground improves" in Kosova, at which time they must return.

The government is sending the refugees to military camps, such as at Brighton in Tasmania, which are far from Australian Albanian speakers. Once they are there, the government will provide them with little more than basic necessities.

This denial of the refugees' human rights by the Australian government is not new. Cambodian and Chinese "boat people" have been interned in Port Hedland.

Up to 1600 East Timorese who fled their country in the years following the 1991 Dili massacre were denied refugee status by the then ALP government. The government, despite its recognition of Indonesian rule over East Timor, said the East Timorese refugees were Portuguese citizens and were free to go there.

The Coalition government has maintained this stance. While the Jakarta-backed terror gangs stalk the streets of East Timor, Canberra denies that the East Timorese refugees have a reasonable fear of persecution (the legal grounds for claiming refugee status). Immigration minister Philip Ruddock, quoted by the May 2 Sun-Herald, has said that East Timorese refugees who arrive in Australia could be deported to Indonesia.

Refugees have fought back with some success in the courts. In response, the federal government has unsuccessfully sought to withdraw many of the legal appeal rights of asylum seekers. To try to force this through the Senate, the government cut the parental part of the family reunion migration program to just 500 per year, extending the length of the waiting list to up to 20 years.

Even the senior writers of the establishment Australian have characterised the government's approach to refugees as reflecting a "mentality of punishment and control" and a "meanness of spirit" that is in line with "Howard's unsentimental views on immigration [that] are nothing if not consistent". The Australian did not ask the reason for this consistency, which in fact began under Labor.

The Australian government's failure to assume humanitarian responsibilities helps to mask its political responsibility for the situations from which refugees are fleeing. The Australian government has supported, and still supports, the Indonesian occupation of East Timor. It supported the Khmer Rouge and its allies in their war against the Cambodian government. It unhesitatingly gives approval to its fellow imperialist powers in NATO in its war against Serbia.

Only public outcry forced the government to act at all on behalf of the Kosovar refugees. Now it is necessary to demand that Kosovar, East Timorese, Chinese and other refugees be given their human right to choose to live here if they wish.

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