Subject: Spotlight on landmark case of 1,650 E. Timorese asylum seekers

The Age [Melbourne] Monday 17 July 2000

Spotlight on Darwin for landmark asylum case


The eyes of 1650 East Timorese asylum seekers living in Australia will be focused on Darwin this week.

The outcome of one asylum seeker's test case, beginning today before the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, will have profound implications for the others scattered around the country.

The action will test the Federal Government's assertion that East Timorese born before the Indonesian invasion in 1975 are Portuguese nationals and should seek that country's protection, not Australia's.

The case concerns an applicant for an Australian refugee visa, born in 1969 in Dili, whose name has been suppressed by the tribunal.

Known only as "SRPP", the applicant entered Australia after fleeing the Indonesian military in 1995. His application for a refugee visa was rejected by a delegate of the Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs in 1996 on the basis that he held Portuguese nationality.

SRPP then appealed that decision to the Refugee Review Tribunal, which held a hearing into the case in 1998. At that hearing, the issue of persecution by the Indonesian military was undisputed but his Portuguese nationality was contested. No decision was taken before the case was referred to the AAT and its president, Federal Court Judge Dierdre O'Connor.

SRPP is of ethnic Chinese origin. He has been working in Darwin for four years, living with his family. He entered Australia on an Indonesian passport and has no links to Portugal. He does not speak Portuguese and neither he nor any of his family has ever been to Portugal.

He contends that as an ethnic Chinese, if he returns he will again face persecution in East Timor.

The government will argue that the applicant will not face persecution if he should return to East Timor. Secondly, it says it will show how he falls into the "factual framework" of Portuguese nationality, having been born before 1975 when Portugal ruled East Timor. It will say that if the applicant feels that he will be persecuted in East Timor, he should then avail himself of the protection of Portugal, not Australia.

Legal sources state this is an important case about nationality in refugee law.

SRPP's lawyers will assert that their client has lost his Indonesian nationality since the East Timorese independence poll. They will argue that SRPP has no affiliation with Portugal and has no Portuguese nationality, therefore he should be assessed in Australia, not deported to Portugal. They maintain that SRPP faces persecution if he is returned to East Timor.

East Timor, they contend, is a dangerous place for ethnic Chinese. There is a perception among East Timorese that certain minorities were unduly close to their former Indonesian administrators.

Only last month, the chief of the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor, Sergio DeMello, briefed the UN Security Council in New York, noting that "attacks and harassment of minority communities - Muslim, Protestant, and ethnic Chinese - continue to be of concern".

Win or lose, for the 1650 East Timorese asylum seekers the test case will provide some certainty to their Australian immigration status.

Most came to Australia in the past decade following the Santa Cruz massacre and, like SRPP, are mainly ethnic Chinese. So many, in fact, that their Australian support group, the Sanctuary Network, produces all information to asylum seekers in the Tetum and Hakka languages.

Should the government prevail in the AAT in Darwin, the network will offer illegal havens to those denied refugee status. Network volunteer Elizabeth Wheeler says: "We know that there are a lot of people in the asylum seeker community who would prefer to go into hiding here in Australia rather then be sent back to East Timor."

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