Inside Story

Safe havens: two cautionary tales

Under pressure from popular opinion, politicians’ children and outspoken backbenchers, the government has announced an extra 12,000 places for refugees from Syria. This isn’t the first time Australia has responded in this way, writes Peter Mares in this extract from his book Borderline, and we can learn from experience


Peter Mares 9 September 2015 5197 words

Temporary welcome: prime minister John Howard and immigration minister Philip Ruddock greet newly arrived Kosovo refugees at Sydney airport on 7 May 1999. Veronica Casetta/AAP Image

A huge roar of welcome surged up from the crowd as the small group of refugees climbed onto the back of the truck that served as a makeshift stage. On that September Sunday in 1999 around 40,000 people had descended on the Victorian parliament. We chanted “Viva Timor L’este!” and “Viva Xanana Gusmao!” and stuffed coins and notes into the collection buckets passing through the crowd. The atmosphere was already highly charged, and now a group of East Timorese was in our midst, recently evacuated from the besieged UN compound in Dili, newly installed in the Puckapunyal safe haven. We wanted to hug those refugees to our hearts, as much for our own comfort as for theirs.

Six months earlier, the arrival of the first “safe haven” refugees from Kosovo had prompted a similar rush of unrestrained generosity. Again, Australians had watched in distant anguish as columns of displaced and dishevelled people streamed over the borders into rudimentary camps in neighbouring states.

Initially, the federal government was reluctant to act. On Easter Sunday, 4 April 1999, John Howard’s immigration minister, Philip Ruddock, flatly declared that “flying planeloads of refugees into Australia would not be an appropriate response” to the Kosovo crisis, despite pledges by the United States, Germany, Turkey and Britain to take in 100,000 people between them.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, hadn’t asked Canberra for assistance and the minister was holding fast to established policy: that Australia offers places for the permanent resettlement of refugees, rather than for “temporary outcomes.” It was a rational position; it was probably good policy, but it was politically unsustainable. Over the Easter break senior government ministers were pressed to act by members of their own families. After watching distressing television footage from the Balkans, children asked their politician parents why Australia was doing so little to help. The media chastised the government for being mean and hard-hearted. Talkback lines ran hot.

When cabinet convened on the Tuesday after Easter, it was clear that something had to be done. Ruddock took a rough briefing paper to the meeting, canvassing a range of alternatives. One option was to offer permanent resettlement to a large number of Kosovars by “borrowing” places from the future annual refugee intake. This posed two problems: refugees from other regions would be unfairly squeezed out, and permanent resettlement could play into the hands of the Serb leader, Slobodan Milosevic, by inadvertently supporting his brutal policy of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.

But providing short-term refuge for the Kosovars presented its own difficulties. There was no legislative basis for the measure and no established procedures for dealing with such an intake. It would put a huge strain on the bureaucracy and it would be very costly. The cabinet debate was protracted and passionate, but in the end temporary refuge appeared to be the only option. The safe-haven visa was born. Conceived amid intense domestic political pressure and designed to offer a humanitarian response to a specific crisis, it would take on a life of its own, evolving into a handy new option in the tool-kit of refugee policy.

John Howard announced the new visa and took the credit. “I’m not prepared to see Australia turn its back on these people,” he said. Ruddock, made to look the villain in the piece, stood stoically by his leader’s side, hiding his emotions behind a fixed grin. The prime minister was also on hand to greet and hug the first group of 400 refugees as they arrived in Australia. Offers to billet the refugees in private homes poured in from around the country; instead, they were accommodated at army barracks such as East Hills near Sydney, Puckapunyal in central Victoria, and Brighton on the outskirts of Hobart.

The open-hearted response of local communities, particularly in country towns, defied the image of Australia as a nation antagonistic to new immigrants. For many people, getting to know the Kosovars was a powerful experience and remarkable links were established with the refugees. When they taught English to the Kosovars, English-as-a-second-language teachers employed at the safe havens felt they were truly fulfilling their vocation. Tasmanian author Richard Flanagan described the response of his home state in moving terms:

It might be expected that Tasmanians would ignore, or even show hostility to the government-sponsored refugees, since the island is routinely portrayed as rednecked and reactionary. Yet when one beleaguered community looked into the eyes of another worse off, it perhaps saw something familiar… The Brighton Kosovars were flooded with offers of help and gestures of friendship. Business provided free clothes, free food, free meals, free tours. Cinemas offered free weekly tickets… The Hobart newspaper, the Mercury, ran articles in Albanian. A commercial television news broadcast began with an introduction in Albanian. Far from being outcast, the Kosovars were taken in.

Although John Howard basked in the initial glow of his government’s magnanimous decision to invite the Kosovars to stay, the official treatment of the refugees was ultimately shabby and mean. As legal academic Michael Head wrote, “The sites chosen for the refugees — disused and semi-used military barracks, usually in remote locations — seemed to be motivated by a desire to discourage the Kosovars from seeking to remain in Australia.”

When one family led a protest about conditions at the Singleton camp, 230 kilometres northwest of Sydney, they were portrayed as ingrates. With an invalid grandmother to care for, the family objected to the lack of privacy in shared facilities and the fact that bathroom and toilet facilities were hundreds of metres away from the wooden huts where they were to sleep. Government officials described the complaints as “totally unreasonable” and suggested that they could send the family back to Kosovo if they were dissatisfied with Australia. As David Brearly commented in the Australian, the charity on offer to the refugees was conditional: “A beggar’s gratitude is the prescribed response; anything less renders the whole deal suspect.”

Once the government decided that it was time for the Kosovars to return home, the situation became predictably messy. Many were reluctant to leave, despite the offer of a “winter reconstruction allowance” of $3000 per adult and $500 for each child, if refugees departed before 30 October 1999. Over subsequent months, reports of the desolate conditions confronting returnees once again made the government look hard-hearted. Critics noted that both Canada and the United States had taken in more Kosovars than Australia had, and offered them a permanent home. State premiers in Tasmania and South Australia began lobbying the federal government to allow the remaining Kosovars to stay.

In the face of intense criticism, Philip Ruddock agreed in late October 1999 to receive personal submissions from those safe-haven refugees who wanted to remain in Australia. But it seems many Kosovars did not really understand the process. According to Clare Cunnington, an English teacher who was employed at the Bandiana safe haven near Albury Wodonga, many Kosovars wrote polite letters thanking the government for its help, and outlining the fact that they had no homes to return to. She says they didn’t realise they needed to demonstrate a well-founded fear of persecution in their homeland in order to qualify for an ongoing protection visa, nor that it might aid their cause to get independent legal advice. Some Kosovars were ultimately allowed to apply for refugee status, and others were eventually granted permission to stay so that they could receive ongoing medical treatment or trauma counselling. But Cunnington says many Kosovars did not trust the confidentiality of the letter-writing process and were reluctant to fully document their personal stories and fears in that way.

By March 2000, there were fewer than 500 Kosovars left in Australia. Those without permission to remain came under sustained government pressure to sign “voluntary” consent forms and depart before the deadline of 8 April. They were told they would be transferred to detention in Port Hedland or Woomera if they refused to leave Australia. Citizens began hiding refugees who had absconded from the safe havens. Faced with imminent return, one Kosovar made her fear and confusion public in a letter to the Australian:

When, as Kosovo refugees, we arrived at Sydney airport hundreds of people were there to welcome us to Australia. We cried because we were happy to be safe and we couldn’t believe we were still alive… We are still tired, traumatised by our experiences and worried about our future and that of our innocent children. The problems in Kosovo have never stopped. Every day we read in the newspapers, see on the news and the Internet that things are still out of control. Today I learned my friend had been shot in a Pristina street. Pristina is supposed to be a safe place. We know that NATO and KFOR [NATO’s Kosovo Force] are in Kosovo to keep the peace, but they can’t be everywhere, in every house or in every street… I am scared for my future too. I have seen the killers; I know their names. I am a war crimes witness. Logic and experience tells me that I will not live to see my evidence heard.

As the departure deadline loomed, the mood at Bandiana safe haven became increasingly depressed. Elaine Mason was working at the primary school, teaching grades one and two. “The children became increasingly tired, distracted, excitable, irritable and confused,” she recalls. “Nightmares re-occurred more often. As their parents became more tired and distracted, the children haunted the school buildings before and after school. Children often burst into tears, something I hadn’t seen in months.”

The Kosovars twice marched several kilometres into Wodonga to protest against their removal. On 6 April, the immigration minister and his parliamentary secretary, Kaye Patterson, visited Bandiana. According to Elaine Mason, a spokesman for the Kosovars addressed the pair with dignity, gratitude and humility: “With trembling lips he spoke of the dangers and deprivation they were being told to return to, especially of the grave risks faced by babies and little children.”

Ruddock would not budge.

“I saw people’s faces turn pasty grey with shock and despair. I thought some would faint,” recalls Mason. “Quiet sobbing filled the room.” Over the next two days some of her Kosovar friends began to slide into despair. One young woman took to her room and refused to eat; a small boy suddenly developed a stutter and began to behave erratically; a teenage girl tried to commit suicide and ended up in a Melbourne hospital. But, despite the pressure to leave, by 8 April only a handful of the remaining Kosovars were willing to depart from Australia.

When Elaine Mason arrived to pack up the school equipment the following Monday, she found that the safe haven had been transformed into a detention centre. Two Australasian Correctional Management guards escorted her from the gate to the classroom. She was met by her remaining eleven pupils, who wanted to attend school as usual, keen to maintain some pattern in their now confused lives. But the guards told the children to go away. They were not allowed in the classroom. “The children were perplexed, stricken and hurt,” says Elaine. “I asked if they could help me pack up, but the request was denied. I was told not to talk to the children at all. The other teachers were told likewise.”

Later that day, Elaine and other teachers were called to attend a briefing with an immigration department official. “We were advised to avoid contact with the Kosovars, to withhold emotional and physical support and to speak with them only to advise them not to go to the Detention Centre,” she says. “He explained the ramifications of choosing the detention centre, the accrued expenses, the impossibility for them to come back to Australia within five years, if ever. I strongly felt that we were being pressured to smooth the department’s way in sending the Kosovars back as soon as possible without fuss or embarrassment to Minister Ruddock and the government.”

Three days later, on 13 April, Ruddock insisted on the 7.30 Report that it was safe for “most” Kosovars to return home, including those from Presevo, a Serbian town just outside the borders of Kosovo, which had been subjected to intensive ethnic cleansing. He said that he based his opinion on advice received from the UNHCR. But the UNHCR’s public pronouncements were much more cautious. On the same day as the Ruddock interview, the head of the UN mission in Kosovo, Bernard Kouchner, appealed for “an orderly and voluntary” return of refugees. In an open letter he said that host countries should allow people to return at a pace that would allow relief agencies to provide the necessary support. He urged governments to “minimise” forced returns, especially of those who are socially and ethnically vulnerable and warned that an influx of refugees would “tarnish” efforts to restore stability and law and order in Kosovo. “We already have problems with too many arriving simultaneously and with lack of regard for the dangers to ethnic minorities,” he said in a media release.

The federal government was undeterred. On Friday and Saturday, 14 and 15 April, the public address system in the camp was used every half-hour or so to call the Kosovars to come forward and sign their “voluntary” consent forms to return home. Heads of families were individually asked over and over again to sign the forms. Friends and supporters of the Kosovars gathered outside Bandiana and waited hours for permission to visit. They were eventually allowed in, but only in small, controlled groups. Each visitor had to nominate the particular family or person they wished to see.

On the Sunday, the government flew 116 people back to Kosovo, although group members had refused to sign the form officially consenting to their departure. Another twenty-one Kosovars were transferred to immigration detention at Port Hedland to await forced removal from Australia. The guests had outstayed their welcome; the safe-haven refugees had become that despised category of people — illegal immigrants. John Howard’s generosity had been expended, although it was Philip Ruddock who once again wore the opprobrium.

A few days later, in a letter written from Sarajevo, a member of the United Nations Mission in Bosnia Herzegovina expressed his distress at the Australian government’s forced removal of the Kosovars. Claiming first-hand experience of the situation in Kosovo, Joel Cohen wrote to the Age: “Ethnic tension, political instability and general distrust prevail. Landmines dot the countryside and violent crime is rampant. Homes have been destroyed and jobs are few. In short, the immediate future for returning refugees will be one of survival rather than peace and stability.”

Similar concerns were expressed about the early return of East Timorese “safe haven” refugees sent back to the smoking ruins of their homeland at the start of the wet season. This time there was no cash on offer. Instead of $3000, each Timorese family was supplied with a fifty-kilogram bag of rice, a blanket and a plastic sheet. According to a ministerial staff member, this “rudimentary kit” was designed to “tide them over for the first few days back in East Timor.”

Even so, it came with conditions attached; to receive this generous “starter pack” the refugees had to leave Australia before the expiry of their safe-haven visas on 8 December 1999. Many East Timorese were, indeed, keen to return, to seek out what was left of their homes, to search for lost relatives and to assist their nation on its path to independence. But some, especially single mothers with young children, were apprehensive. They asked if they could wait out the wet season and rebuild their strength in Australia before returning.

Refugees at the East Hills safe-haven near Sydney claim that officials pressured them to leave by alleging that revered resistance leader Xanana Gusmao was calling the centre every day and asking, “When are my people coming home?” In fact, Gusmao had asked the federal government to allow the refugees to remain in Australia until the situation in the territory stabilised. The refugees also claim that they were told to go back quickly or risk finding that all the best land in the territory had been settled in their absence.

The federal government had initially been reluctant to bring many of the East Timorese to Australia at all. As with the Kosovars, the government’s hand was forced by public opinion and by the resolute determination of UN staff. In the days of orchestrated violence that followed the UN-sponsored vote on East Timor’s future, the UN compound in Dili became a sanctuary. As the town was looted and torched by pro-Indonesian militia, local and expatriate United Nations staff sheltered behind its walls. They were joined by relatives, by the few remaining journalists left in East Timor and by hundreds of Dili residents unable to flee to the hills. Many of the East Timorese initially camped in the adjacent block of land where the United Nations kept its vehicles, but, as the militia and the Indonesian military continued their campaign of terror, they clambered, terrified, into the UN compound proper. My ABC colleague Diane Martin described how babies were tossed over the barbed wire to safety.

Initially, the federal government only wanted to provide entry to the 350 locally engaged UN staff and their immediate family members. The decision to evacuate everyone in the compound was forced upon them by circumstance; some UN staff refused to leave unless all the East Timorese in the compound were also included in the rescue mission.

After their arrival in Darwin, the inexperience of Australian health authorities in dealing with a large group of third world refugees quickly became apparent. The primary healthcheck used on all migrants to Australia is screening for tuberculosis and this approach was also used with the refugees from East Timor. In fact, a chest X-ray for all refugees over sixteen years of age was made mandatory under the safe-haven legislation. The key aim was to protect the broader Australian community from this infectious disease.

In normal circumstances TB screening makes good sense, but these were not normal circumstances. TB is a serious disease and proved to be a major health problem among the Timorese, but it does not kill quickly; there is usually a relatively long period in which effective intervention is possible. The most immediate and lethal threat to the refugees themselves was measles: in children with poor nutritional status, measles can have a 10 per cent mortality rate. Mass immunisation of refugee populations is the recommended course of action under internationally recognised emergency health guidelines. But because the measles vaccine interferes with the Mantoux test to detect the presence of TB in children, Australian health authorities planned to hold off on immunisation until after TB screening had been completed. It took strenuous argument from public health professionals to bring the immunisation forward. Their arguments gained greater force when the first case of child measles was identified in the Puckapunyal camp just one day after the refugees arrived in Victoria. Mass vaccinations began two days later. As one doctor commented later: “It’s just lucky there wasn’t a serious epidemic.”

Measles is more damaging in children suffering from vitamin A deficiency, and in such circumstances can easily lead to blindness. Current best practice in international refugee healthcare is to administer vitamin A supplements where there is evidence that children are malnourished. Paediatricians identified symptoms of vitamin A deficiency in the Timorese refugee children almost as soon as they arrived. Despite this, plans by public health professionals working in Puckapunyal to administer supplements initially encountered resistance on the basis of cost.

Neither was there any initial recommendation for blanket treatment for gut parasites despite strong grounds to assume that this was a primary cause of illness among the refugees. Although diarrhoea was immediately identified as a major health problem, blanket worming was only introduced after lobbying by public health staff at Puckapunyal, whose tests of 111 stool samples showed parasites, often of multiple types, were indeed being carried by almost half the population. The information revealed by the tests subsequently proved extremely valuable to health professionals working in East Timor itself, who had no ability to identify the types of parasites present in the local population.

To be fair, healthcare arrangements for the East Timorese had to be organised in a tremendous rush. Many of the medical staff deployed to Puckapunyal had only two days’ notice to prepare for the arrival of the refugees, while those already working at the camp had set them themselves up to provide healthcare to the previous residents, the Kosovars, who had been through initial screening and inoculation procedures in Europe. As refugees from a more developed country, they were generally in better health and better nourished than the Timorese; they were also more familiar with a Western medical regime, and more assertive, which meant that they were more likely to present themselves at a clinic to seek treatment for their ailments. The Timorese were reluctant to come forward and ask for help on their own behalf; providing them with adequate healthcare demanded a more pro-active, public-health approach.

Even taking these matters into account, the general approach was mean-spirited. Cost containment and protecting the Australian community from disease appear to have been the driving factors, rather than the health of the refugees themselves. “We were specifically told that we were not to undertake ‘screening,’” says one doctor. “We managed to get cooperation with microbiological and parasitic screening by arguing that it provided information needed to manage the population safely, but it was otherwise a struggle.” The doctor says that there was no systematic check on the health status of the 360 children at Puckapunyal and that in the end only about half the children were examined by nursing staff.

Medical staff at Puckapunyal were told from the outset that their brief was “immediately necessary healthcare.” Surgery was to be available in Category 1 and 2 cases as defined under federal health guidelines, which include conditions “causing some pain, dysfunction or disability.” Yet a paediatrician found himself running up against bureaucratic obstacles when he recommended a proper clinical assessment of a child with a cleft palate. A severe cleft palate can lead to chronic hearing problems and severely impeded speech. It can make it hard for a child to eat adequately because swallowing is inhibited and this, in turn, can stunt a child’s growth. In Australia a congenital defect of this nature would be corrected before a baby was twelve months old; in the case of the East Timorese refugee, the paediatrician had to counter official suspicion that he was recommending “cosmetic surgery” outside the treatment guidelines.

Pap smears were another issue of contention, as was anything to do with women’s health. Staff from the Mercy Hospital for Women carried out smears on twenty-eight women who displayed symptoms of reproductive ill-health. Three of the women were found to have cancer of the cervix, requiring surgery. This alarmingly high incidence led obstetrician Desiree Yap to conclude that there was “an absolute moral obligation” to offer screening to all the women at Puckapunyal. The recommendation was never acted on, as pap smears were judged to be a “screening test” and considered “non-acute.” This was at odds with the policy promise to provide “general practitioner services of the range available to the Australian community.” A pap smear has a total cost of about $40, from procedure to result.

Dr Yap has a postgraduate degree in public health and has undertaken specialist training in refugee healthcare. She says that in the end she felt morally and ethically compromised by her involvement in providing care at Puckapunyal. Considering that many of the women were now the heads of their households and would return to a hostile environment, and that most had the added burden of young children, she believes that the lack of directed health programs was both morally questionable and out of step with international recommendations.

She was not alone in her concern at the treatment meted out to the refugees from East Timor. “This is a very affluent country and we had the opportunity to do more for them than we actually did,” says another health professional who worked at Puckapunyal. “It was clear once the dust had settled, once DIMA had dusted themselves off, that the big focus was to get these people back out of the country again as soon as possible. They didn’t want them to put down roots.”

When it became apparent that the refugees would be repatriated to East Timor quickly, health workers began formulating an education program to prepare them for their return. The idea was to inform designated community members about issues such as basic hygiene, sanitation, disease identification and the use of insecticide-impregnated mosquito nets to prevent malaria. When the immigration department in Canberra got wind of the education program, it called an immediate halt. It then insisted on officially vetting all the educational material, and sought to prevent the inclusion of any information that might portray conditions in East Timor in a bad light. The trainers were expected to withhold accurate information about the physical conditions returnees would encounter in the territory, for fear that this might deter them from going back. Yet, such knowledge was obviously essential to properly prepare community members for their return.

There was also a great deal of secrecy surrounding the refugees. One professional says that he had to submit information for a military security clearance before he was employed at the camp. He was told not to speak to the media or anybody else without official clearance and told not to bring a camera or tape-recorder into the camp. It was made difficult for journalists to enter Puckapunyal and representatives from the International Commission of Jurists were prevented from visiting the camp to conduct interviews with the refugees. The Commission was hoping to assist United Nations efforts to inquire into human rights crimes in East Timor by inviting refugees to give personal testimony of any acts of violence that they had witnessed in the pre- and post-ballot period. To be useful, such testimony needs to be recorded as soon after the event as possible in interviews conducted by appropriately qualified legal practitioners. Ruddock turned down the access request, and when the Commission’s Victorian representative, Spencer Zifcak, went to Puckapunyal, he was met by a polite departmental official with specific instructions from head office to prohibit him from interviewing any East Timorese.

Ruddock claimed he wanted to spare the Timorese unwarranted intrusion in their already traumatised lives. One can hardly avoid the conclusion, though, that the ban on the International Commission of Jurists was really designed to prevent further strain on the relationship with Indonesia. Despite all that had occurred before, Canberra did not want to be seen to be providing any assistance to the process of identifying and prosecuting Indonesian military officers responsible for war crimes.

The ban accords with the overall approach to the refugees, which was paternalistic and disempowering rather than consultative and respectful, and suggestive of an official desire to control and contain their activities. The isolation of the camps made the refugees heavily reliant on the immigration department and reduced their capacity for independent action. Of course, they were free to leave the camps, although they would not have got far on the $27 per week per adult and $10 per week per child granted to each family to cover living expenses. The fact that many refugees did leave on excursions was mostly due to the hospitality extended to them by the Australian public, especially by members of the expatriate Timorese community.

Assisting the Kosovars alone cost at least $100 million; this is five times the amount of money Australia provided to the UNHCR global program in 1998. While it may appear miserly to question the spending of money on bringing Kosovars here, it is not unreasonable to suggest that the safe-haven money might have been better spent. For example, could more assistance have been given to more people if Australia had spent $100 million supporting refugee camps in Macedonia and other frontline states in the Balkans? Would it have been better to fund reconstruction efforts in Kosovo itself, given that the refugees are going back to a shattered society?

To cut the figures another way, Australia spent a minimum of $25,000 on each Kosovar refugee in 1999; in the same year Iran received less than $20 worth of UNHCR assistance for each one of the four million or so Afghan and Iraqi refugees living within its borders. Perhaps the $100 million would have been better spent there, reducing the motivation for refugees to leave Iran and turn up as boat people on Australia’s shores. This might, also, have spared us the additional cost of building new detention centres and processing asylum claims.

Australia had fewer options in relation to the East Timorese inside the UN compound in Dili. To refuse to evacuate them to Australia would have meant leaving unarmed civilians at the mercy of the pro-Jakarta militia. In the case of both the Kosovars and the East Timorese, once we took them in as refugees, we also assumed a duty of care towards them. According to the basic conventions of hospitality, they deserved better treatment.

Philip Ruddock praised the efforts of immigration department staff in managing the safe-haven program, saying that his officers “rendered an exceptionally outstanding performance in the national interest.” He pointed out that they had to develop and implement “a program to evacuate almost half as many people as we have under our whole refugee and humanitarian program, almost 6000 people, halfway around the world, and to manage them, that is to feed, keep, support, and to implement all of that… within weeks.” He noted that the safe-haven project was carried out when the department was already under great strain owing to the increase in unlawful boat-arrivals.

Certainly, many departmental staff showed great dedication and professionalism in assisting the refugees from both Kosovo and East Timor. Ultimately, however, the government’s response to the safe-haven refugees was framed by same basic concerns that dominate policy to all asylum seekers and refugees: the determination to strictly control Australia’s borders and carefully screen entry into the country. •

This is an edited extract from Borderline: Australia’s Response to Refugees and Asylum Seekers in the Wake of the Tampa by Peter Mares, published in 2002 by UNSW Press.