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Last Updated: Monday, 3 May, 2004, 13:52 GMT 14:52 UK
Refugees find their niche in Australia

By Phil Mercer
BBC correspondent in Sydney

There are signs that support for Australia's uncompromising stance on asylum is beginning to weaken in the country's conservative heartlands.

A large number of refugees who have been released from detention on temporary protection visas live and work in the outback. Many have become a vital part of the local area.

Some farming communities - often associated with reactionary views on immigration - are now actively campaigning for a softening of official policy to allow the refugees to stay permanently.

Juma Abdullahi
Juma Abdullahi has built up a thriving business

It is as much about economics as it is about compassion. Parts of regional Australia are suffering a severe shortage of casual labour.

For 40 Afghan refugees, an incredible journey escaping persecution has brought them to an orchard near the town of Shepparton in northern Victoria.

They are employed by a contractor who is an asylum seeker who fled Afghanistan during the Taleban years.

Juma Abdullahi, an ethnic Hazara, has built up a profitable business with 300 workers.

The 24-year-old spent time in an Australian detention centre while his claims for asylum were investigated.

His three-year protection visa has expired and he has applied for another. A decision by immigration officials on his future is expected soon.

Juma told News Online that he feared he would be murdered if he was sent home.

Aren't these the sort of people we want in this country - who've got the courage, the strength and the commitment... to go through such danger?
Rob Bryant, Rural Australians for Refugees

"I can't go back in Afghanistan - if I did I'd die - somebody kill me," he said.

He said his uncle was killed by political opponents and his father thrown in jail before he escaped four years ago.

His employees earn up to AUD$16 (US$11) per hour. Even during a southern Australian autumn the work is hot and dusty.

Orchard owner Ross Turnbull said such was the scarcity of labour, the refugees helped keep his business afloat.

"They've been wonderful people and are very keen to work," he said.

"We don't get them cheap," he told the BBC. "They are paid at the same rates as Australians, but their output is great."

A number of conservative MPs in farming areas have argued that asylum seekers on temporary visas should be allowed to stay permanently to help solve the problems in the rural labour market.

The mayor of Shepparton, Ann McCamish, said it was an idea worth pursuing.

Filling a gap

"We used to have a tremendous number of backpackers but that number has dropped off - possibly because of international terrorism and September 11," she explained to News Online.

"But the gap has been filled mostly by refugees and boat-people and they've done it very well," she said.

It is common for former detainees do the sort of jobs that many locals won't touch, including working in abattoirs and picking fruit.

Rob Bryant from the campaign group Rural Australians for Refugees said they were proving themselves to be a valuable part of the community.

"Aren't these the sort of people we want in this country - who've got the courage, the strength and the commitment to themselves and to their families to go through such danger?" he said.

The government has acknowledged the positive impact thousands of refugees have had on Australia's development since World War II.

Refugee fruit picker
The refugees are paid at local rates

It recently announced it would accept more refugees under official humanitarian programmes, but has insisted the country's controversial immigration policies are here to stay.

They include the mandatory detention of asylum seekers of all ages, which is justified by the authorities on health and security grounds.

Most of the Afghans working here in Shepparton risked their lives travelling by boat from Indonesia to reach Australia.

An even bigger challenge lies ahead - that of trying to convince the authorities to let them stay and build new lives.

Those who fail face being sent home, and yet more uncertain twists and turns in their extraordinary journey.

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