Disaster on our doorstep

In March 1999 we reported that there were 50,000 refugees in and around the city of Baubau on the island of Buton, Sulawesi. They had fled political and religious strife in Ambon, Tual, Irian Jaya and Timor. They had nowhere to call home, having lost everything except the clothes they stood in. The only choice available to these refugees was to flee to their ancestral home in Buton in order to live. For the greater majority, this was a desperate attempt to trace family links they had no way of knowing had already died out. As a result, the refugees were homeless, money-less, suffering disease and hunger, and had no hope for the future without external support. Reports were made by other parties at the time.

Many had died as a result of these conditions and many more died in ensuing months because conditions became worse. Where it has been possible, several families put together some meager resources and scrounged what they could not obtain otherwise, to build shelters in which they live. It was not uncommon to find as many as five families (some with up to 7 children) living in a 2 by 3 meter shelter. They had no drinking water, no sanitation, no facilities, and not enough food to live on. The government provided them a kilogram of rice per person per month, but often that was late arriving, worsening the already difficult living conditions. Even allowing that the rice arrived on time, one kilogram is not enough to provide adequate sustenance for a child and far less than the needs of an adult. They could not return to their original homes for fear of persecution and death.

Responding to this situation, an Australian effort commenced the SAO Buton relief program. This program to build 60 house units was started early in July. This program was targeted to people living in derelict buildings, empty school yards, in lean-to shacks, in street gutters, on town ovals and who were adversely affected by the monsoon season when exposure to the elements took it's worst toll. The total need at that time was for 8,000 houses. The expected construction cost was $A360 each. The response to the program was amazingly generous and from Australian sources alone it was possible to construct 250 houses. Quite apart from housing, the program provided health and sanitation needs for the refugees and commenced self-sustaining work enterprises at which the refugees were involved in setting up and ongoing operation.

This program operated as a low profile direct aid effort. It commenced with a field director and field worker who operate full time on a local-rate salary in Buton. There were minimal additional costs for transport and communication, allowing SAO Buton to put 93 cents in each dollar to the direct benefit of the refugees. There is probably no other aid program in the world that so effectively realised its goals. Tax-deductible contributions from Australia make a big difference for a refugee family. 


Duncan Group International
PO Box 1155, Northam WA 6401, Australia
Phone +61 (0) 8 9574 0410 Email

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