"Let them stay!" chanted a crowd of tearful, placard-waving demonstrators outside the Bandiana army base in north-eastern Victoria, home to thousands of Kosovo Albanians for the past year.
Some hope. The deadline set by John Howard's conservative government ran out yesterday: those that failed to sign a declaration affirming their willingness to go home will be locked up and then deported.
Australia, which once rejoiced in its reputation as a sanctuary for the world's persecuted and oppressed, is now among the least welcoming of countries. The ethnic Albanians have been left in no doubt that Australian hospitality is finite; once the United Nantions High Commission for Refugees tentatively declared Kosovo safe, the government made clear it wanted them to return to their homeland, and quickly.
Most of the 4,000 people given refuge in Australia have already left voluntarily; of the 450 who remain, 268 have had their permits extended for health reasons or been allowed to apply for three-year protection visas, the first step to refugee status.
The rest have been waging a desperate and fruitless battle to persuade the Immigration Minister, Philip Ruddock, to let them stay. When their visas expired last Sunday, they refused to board planes to Europe. The government declared them illegal immigrants; overnight, their "safe haven" camps became detention centres patrolled by security guards. They were barred from receiving visitors, and their telephone cards were withdrawn.
The Australian public rallied in support of the refugees, holding demonstrations at Bandiana and in Tasmania, home to another contingent. Some of the ethnic Albanians went on hunger strike, and one girl, aged 17, attempted suicide.
But Mr Ruddock refused to budge. Most of the refugees gave in to the ultimatum, although 30 are missing after absconding from detention centres. The government has passed a series of tough asylum laws since coming to power in 1996, and has taken a hard line in dealing with the thousands of "boat people" who land on Australian shores. Up to 200 illegal immigrants were feared dead yesterday after their boat went missing on the way from Indonesia to Australia.
When Mr Howard agreed - grudgingly, after a cabinet revolt - to take in the Kosovo Albanians, a new class of visa was introduced. The "safe haven" visa, which disqualifies them from applying for refugee status while in Australia, was also given to East Timor's refugees.
Meanwhile, the government announced just last week that it is increasing the quota of skilled, educated migrants who are to be permitted to settle in Australia in the coming year.
Many refugees say they fear for their safety in Kosovo. Ali Jahiu said: "The situation there is out of control. The Serbs in my town believe that I fought for the KLA. If I go back, I am going to be killed. I'm 31 years old and I want to live for more than 31 years."
Erik Lloga, chairman of the Albanian National Council, who has been negotiating with Mr Ruddock on behalf of the refugees, said: "They have tasted freedom for the first time, in a society where people do not hate others because of their ethnicity, where the people have embraced them. They think Australia must be one of the most marvellous places in the world."Reuse content