Conflict, Chaos and Community – AMES Australia’s role in refugee crises

The 80s, 90s and 2000s

Since its inception in 1951, AMES Australia has played a central role in supporting the settlement refugees who have fled wars and civil conflict across the globe.

Hundreds of thousands of displaced persons came to Australia as refugees in the 1980s, 90s and 2000s. Many had fled an increasing number of conflicts and genocides across the globe. Most were not been able to return home because of closed borders, fear of persecution or continuing conflict.

Most of them left behind families or loved ones. Almost all of those who arrived in Victoria were supported by AMES Australia through language support and/or settlement services.


There are more than 15,000 Afghans living in Australia. They began coming in the late 1970s as a result of the latest cycle of conflict in Afghanistan which started in 1978 when insurgent groups known collectively as the Mujahedeen fought a war against the Soviet Army and its puppet Afghan government. The conflict lasted throughout the 1980s in what was effectively a Cold War proxy war.

Between 560,000 and two million Afghans were killed and millions more fled the country as refugees mostly to Pakistan and Iran.

Since then there have been many internal conflicts between warring factions and tribes which saw the persecution and wholesale killing of several minority groups. Gradually the Taliban emerged as a dominant military and religious force in the country and the repression of minorities increases.

After the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001, the US and its allies increase their presence on the ground and ramp up airstrikes with the collateral deaths of thousands of Afghans.

Over these years thousands of Afghans, particularly members of minority groups such as the Hazara, made their way to Australia as refugees and asylum seekers.

As the US alliance prepares to pull out of Afghanistan, there are fears the Taliban will seize control of the country, creating countless more refugees.

The Balkans

Between 1991 and 2001 a series of separate by related ethnic conflicts, wars of independence and insurgencies were fought in the former Yugoslavia resulting in the break-up of the country. About 140,000 died as a result.

Most of the wars ended through peace accords, involving full international recognition of new states, but with a massive human cost and economic damage to the region.

The Yugoslav People’s Army, largely controlled by Serbia, sought to stop secessionist movements and replace the dissolving communist system. As Slovenes, Croats, Kosovar Albanians, Bosnians, and Macedonians defected it effectively became a Serbian army intent of creating a ‘greater Serbia’.

The conflicts were marked by war crimes, including genocide, ethnic cleansing and rape. The Bosnian genocide was the first European crime to be formally classified as genocidal in character since World War II

About 16,000 Bosnian refugees made their way to Australia.

In 1999, Australia initially refused to join NATO in accepting extra refugees from the Kosovo crisis, offering only temporary asylum to visitors trapped in Australia by the Balkans war.

This decision was quickly overruled by then Prime Minister John Howard who authorised nearly 4,000 Kosovar refugees’ temporary visas to stay in Australia.


Most of the 14,000 or so Somalis living in Australia are refugees who were accepted through Australia’s Humanitarian Settlement Program.

Almost all have arrived from a third country in the region, such as Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea or North Sudan.

They have usually spent many years, often over a decade, in these countries, living in refugee camps waiting to be processed. It is common for Somali refugees to be born in refugee camps in surrounding countries.

The Somali civil war is ongoing. It grew out of resistance to the ruling military junta in the early 1980s. After defeating the military government led by Siad Barre various armed factions began competing for influence in the power vacuum leading to fighting.

In 2000 there was a lull in fighting but in 2005, a sustained and destructive conflict took place in the south.

Forces from neighbouring countries brought order over the next few years until The Federal Government of Somalia was established in August 2012, constituting the country's first permanent central government since the start of the civil war.

However International stakeholders and analysts still describe Somalia as a “fragile state”

Rwanda Central Africa 1994

In April 1994 of more than two million Rwandans fled to neighbouring countries of the Great Lakes region of Africa in the wake of the Rwandan genocide which saw up to 800,000 mostly ethnic Tutsis slaughtered.

The genocide had lasting and profound effects. In 1996, the Rwandan government launched an offensive into Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo, targeting members of the former Hutu-dominated Rwandan government and many Hutu refugees.

From the mid-1990s, Australia has accepted several thousand victims of the Rwandan genocide and subsequent Great Lakes conflicts.

South Sudan – 2011 – 2020

Of the roughly 3,500 South Sudanese refugees in Australia, the largest number, about 1,300, live in Victoria and most would have been part of the AMES Australia Humanitarian Settlement Program (HSP).

Prominent South Sudanese in Australia include fashion models, Ajak Deng and Aweng Ade-Chuol, AFL footballers Majak Daw and Allir Allir, defence lawyer and New South Wales Australian of the Year for 2017 Deng Adut, Olympic runners Peter Bol and Joseph Deng, soccer player Awer Mobil, basketballer Thon Maker and lawyer and human rights advocate Nyadol Nyuon.

The South Sudanese Civil War was a multi-sided conflict that broke out in the newly independent nation between government and opposition forces. In December 2013, President Kir accused his former deputy Riek Marchar and ten others of attempting a coup. Machar denied the coup attempt and fled to lead the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in a war against the government.

Syria Iraq – 2011

Around 100,000 Syrians and Iraqis have found refuge in Australia since the conflict there began in 2011.

The war in Syrian began as a reaction to the ‘Arab Spring’ and grew out of discontent with the Syrian government, escalating into an armed conflict after protests calling for President Bashar al Assad’s were suppressed.

The conflict saw various domestic and foreign forces that oppose both the Syrian government and each other. It was complicated by the rise of the extremist Islamic group ISIS.

Venezuela – 2014

Since Venezuela plunged into an economic and political crisis in 2014, more than five million people have fled the country.

Thousands have come to Australia as refugees or migrants and many have passed through AMES Australia’s settlement programs.

Venezuela has long been mired in corruption, military dictatorships and violent crime; and, since the 1980s, economic decline.

The most recent round of instability began in 1998 when Hugo Chavez was elected president amid disenchantment with established parties.

He launched the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ that brought in a new constitution, socialist and populist economic and social policies funded by high oil prices, and increasingly vocal anti-US foreign policy.

In 2013, the inflation rate reached more than 50 per cent a year and the National Assembly gave President Maduro – who succeeded Chavez – emergency powers for a year prompting protests by opposition supporters.

Crime in Venezuela is endemic, with violent crimes such as murder and kidnapping often increasing annually.

A UN report attributed crime to the poor political and economic environment in the country, which has the second highest murder rate in the world.

Myanmar - 2016

For several decades, the Myanmar military has been engaged in the violent repression of the nation’s ethnic minorities. And things have gotten worse since the military seized power again in February’s coup

The ethnic minority Karen have been persecuted by the Burmese government for 30 years. There are an estimated 150,000 Karen living in refugee camps in or on the Thai border.

The Burmese army has systematically destroyed Karen villages and in operations described by human rights groups as ethnic cleansing.

More recently the Rohingya people have fallen victim to repression. More than 800,000 have fled to Bangladesh after the military launched a brutal offensive in 2016 against their communities in Rakhine state.

But the persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar dates back to the 1970s. Since then, the Rohingya people have been persecuted by the government and by nationalist Buddhists.

The Burmese military has been accused of ethnic cleansing by UN agencies and the International Criminal Court.

AMES Australia has supported large Karen and Chin communities in Melbourne’s west and a growing Rohingya community in the city’s south-east.

Stay tuned for more migrant stories: