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Australia must help with the human cost of war in Iraq, too

By Greg Barns - posted Monday, 6 January 2003

One of the inevitable consequences of a war in Iraq will be thousands of refugees. This was the case in Kosovo and Afghanistan, and in the case of Iraq last week there were media reports suggesting that there could be up to 900,000 displaced persons as a consequence of any war. No doubt the Australian government will be asked to take some of these people. But the question is, will these desperate people be allowed to settle in our country or will they be forced back to their devastated homeland, just as happened to the Kosovars and the Afghan refugees who have languished in detention centres in this country for years?
The answer to that question should be: let's learn from the inhumanity of what we did to the Kosovars and Afghans and let Iraqis who are forced to flee because of a conflict rebuild their lives in our country.

No doubt there will be some in the community who will argue that once the cause of oppression and destitution is eradicated - the Taliban in Afghanistan or the Milosevic Serbian regime in Kosovo - then those who fled can return to their homes because there lives are no longer at risk.

But the evidence is that such a view is at best naïve and at worst, cynical and manufactured for political gain.


In the case of Kosovo, Australia took in 4,000 people in need of a safe haven in early 1999. It was made it clear to these people that their stay in Australia would be a short one and a cash incentive of $3000 for each adult and $500 for each child under 18 was provided to encourage them to head back to Kosovo before the winter set in that year. Many Kosovars wanted to return home, but many didn't. However, Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock ensured there was no choice. As he said on 22 October 1999: "it is not a matter of if these people will return home but when."

And what is life like for these people three years on? A United Press International report on Boxing Day this year had this to say of Kosovo: It has an unemployment rate of 57 per cent and "more than half of its destitute inhabitants survive beneath the poverty line. Its status unresolved and with diminishing international profile, it fails to attract the massive flows of foreign investment needed merely to maintain its utilities and mines. It is a veritable powder keg adjacent to a precariously balanced Macedonia".

The Howard government's tactic of cash handouts to force refugees home was also used in the aftermath of the Afghanistan conflict. Again Mr Ruddock was quick off the mark in seeing that he could empty the notorious detention centres by offering Afghan refugee applicants a package that "includes $A2,000 per individual adult or child (or up to $A10,000 per family unit comprising husband, wife and dependent children)" to travel back to Afghanistan and support services when they arrive there.

So far, Afghanistan looks like being another Kosovo, only a lot worse. Only three weeks ago CNN reported that, according to the United Nations, 1,600 women die in Afghanistan in every 100,000 live births. In comparison, only 12 deaths per 100,000 are recorded in the United States. In some parts of Afghanistan "64 per cent of women of child-bearing age die in pregnancy and childbirth", according to the report.

The warlords dominate all areas outside of Kabul and the UN has recently reported that Al-Queda groups are reforming. The respected US organization, Human Rights Watch reported on 17 December that in the city of Heratt women are being subjected to chastity tests. The economy is in a diabolical state and the financial contribution of the developed world committed at a conference in Tokyo earlier this year amounts to only $US75 per person!

On 20 December, the ABC's The World Today program interviewed some of those who have accepted the Ruddock cash handout offer and returned to Afghanistan. One of these people, 23-year-old Anwar Khan, who spent 14 months in detention in Nauru after being rescued by the Tampa, went back to the Afghan capital Kabul to find that his family has fled to Iran. He has to find money to rent a hotel room and lives in fear that his old enemies in the Taliban will seek him out to kill him.


The situation in Iraq will be equally bleak after any war despite its oil reserves, which the US so desperately wants to access. Barbara Stocking of Oxfam said last week: "Iraq's economy is already devastated. Even with the food rationing system set up by the international community, malnutrition is widespread, especially among women and children". The water and sanitation system is on the verge of collapse, according to Oxfam.

The Australian people should demand that our politicians do the right thing this time - stop 'bribing' refugees to go home when the reality is that their lives will be as awful as when they left in the first place. Let those who want to rebuild their esteem and sense of worth do so in this luckiest of lucky countries.

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This article was first published in The Age on 2 January, 2002.

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About the Author

Greg Barns is National President of the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

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