Refugees

The United Nations Convention of 1951 defines a refugee as a person who 'owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his/her nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself/herself of the protection of that country'.

Refugees came to Tasmania from the early twentieth century, but there is no precise information about them. Many Russian refugees came to Australia due to the Russian revolution of 1917 and possibly a few arrived in Tasmania. A Refugee Council of Tasmania existed in the 1930s to assist Jewish refugees, as from 1934 onwards, Australia accepted 22,000 of these. Tasmanian Premier Ogilvie came out strongly in their support.

After the war, Australian policy meant that most refugees were European anti-communists and displaced persons, recruited essentially as a source of labour. The first wave of refugees (known as displaced people) to Tasmania were Polish, Dutch, German, Italian, and 'Balts' from the Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania). In the 1950s refugees included Hungarians, Russians, Greeks and Ukrainians, and in the 1960s Czechs and Slovaks. The Brighton migrant hostel was opened in 1949 as initial accommodation. The Good Neighbour Council, started in 1949, included migrants and refugees in its membership. However in the 1950s it saw its role as helping voluntary migrants who followed the initial wave of refugees.

Until 1964 migrants and refugees were expected to assimilate into the Anglo-Australian way of life. In 1964 assimilation changed to integration, and in 1973 to multiculturalism. In 1977 a commitment to ongoing support of refugees was made, particularly in skills-based selection and family reunion. The Racial Discrimination Act made it unlawful to discriminate on grounds of race, colour and national or ethnic origin.

Refugees from the Vietnam War began arriving in 1975, varying from peasant people to professionals. The Hmong people from the mountains of Laos were the next arrivals, escaping a constant war. Vue Thaow, originally a Colombo Plan student, and his family acted as sponsors and mentors. In the 1980s some Afghans and Iranian Baha'is started arriving. The Adult Migrant Education Service was started when the earlier hostel at Mount St Canice closed in 1974.

It was not until 1974 that political refugees from an anti-communist pro-western regime were admitted, namely Chileans. However, it was 1983 before many arrived in Tasmania. The band Arauco Libre was started, enabling the young men to have a focus. After the Chileans came people from El Salvador. By 1992 Tasmania had the highest proportion of refugee arrivals in Australia.

After a gap in arrivals, the federal government started a concept of temporary refugees and for a few months in 1999 the Peace Haven Camp at Brighton housed Kosovars from the former Yugoslavia. 'We shouldn't expect them to be grateful', was a comment made then that surely applies to all people forced from their homes. Iraqi Kurds arrived, mainly to the north of the state; some were Muslim and others Coptic Christians. Sudanese people began arriving in 1999 and people from other African countries followed Ethiopia, Eritrea, Liberia, Mali, Rwanda, then Somalia, Yemen and Sierra Leone. A handful of asylum seekers found their way mainly to Launceston on Temporary Protection Visas, and groups of refugees from Afghanistan were sent to Launceston and Devonport. Numbers of refugees move to mainland states, but figures are difficult to obtain. Many Tasmanians assist in providing support for refugees through Community Refugee Support groups and generally, and despite a lack of resources, there is enthusiasm to welcome more.

Further reading: D Young, From Vistula to Derwent, Hobart, 2000; R Tarvydas, From amber coast to apple isle, Hobart, 1997; www.refugeecouncil.org.au; P Bartrop,'The Premier as advocate', THRAPP 35/2, 1988.

Yabbo Thompson