Kosovars removed from Tasmania


By Tony Iltis

HOBART — On November 1, 120 Kosovar Albanian refugees still housed at the Brighton army barracks in Tasmania were loaded onto an early morning flight to the Bandiana camp in northern Victoria, where they will remain until their deportation to an uncertain future in their war-ravaged homeland.

The refugees' arrival in May was the occasion for much self-congratulation by federal politicians and local media, who took the opportunity to display their "humanitarian" credentials. The local Murdoch-owned Mercury even ran a page in the Albanian language welcoming the refugees.

By last month, the message had changed. The front-page headline of the October 15 Mercury was "GO HOME!".

Federal government efforts to get the Kosovar refugees to return home have included a $3000 resettlement grant to those who left before the end of October and threats of jail and deportation for those who remained. However, after reports filtered back to Australia from the first refugees to return to Kosova that they were living in tents deep in snow and constantly risked landmine injuries, the remaining refugees' desire to stay in Australia increased.

Lawyers acting on behalf of the refugees initiated court action. After immigration minister Philip Ruddock agreed on November 3 to allow the 500 Kosovars at Bandiana to apply individually for refugee status while still in Australia, the legal action was put on hold.

About 150 of the remaining refugees are from the Serbian-controlled areas in eastern Kosova.

The betrayal felt by the Kosovars was summed up by departing refugee Agron Mataj, who said, "We feel very, very sad. It seems this is the end. In the beginning we thought this was a place for a new beginning. We found many, many friends and a lot of kindness."

Stefano Lufi from the Albanian Community of Tasmania said, "When they came here they were rehabilitated to a point, but now they are being traumatised again by threats of forcible removal from this country".

Ruddock was unmoved. "The fact that people have lost their homes is not a reason to stay in Australia", he said, adding that the danger of landmines was not an excuse either.

Human rights lawyer Gwynne MacCarrick told Green Left Weekly that the Australian government's program was "mean spirited from the beginning. The invitation was made with short-term intentions." She pointed out that those refugees resisting return were homeless and faced a European winter.

She accused the federal government of showing "no concern for the people involved. Already traumatised people are being ferried around the country like cattle. There is no more respect for human rights at this end than where they fled from."

MacCarrick contrasted the federal government's attitude with ordinary Tasmanians' generosity to the refugees. When the refugees arrived, the "wall of the Red Cross building was stacked with bags of donations. People in Tasmania opened their hearts."

Significantly, support for the Kosovars in Tasmania remains high, despite a concerted propaganda campaign, which included Senator Eric Abetz making unsubstantiated allegations that the refugees vandalised camp facilities at Brighton and the Mercury using the arrival of boat people in northern Australia as an excuse to run front-page headlines warning of a "refugee flood".

The public support for the Albanians has been reflected in state politicians, including Premier Jim Bacon, opposing the forced deportations.

Lufi described the federal government's stance as "very disappointing and cruel ... What I'm wondering is whether the politicians who were there to welcome them [the Kosovars] at Sydney when they arrived will have the guts to wave them home."