Subject: GU: Theatre of the Absurd (refugees in Australia)

The Guardian [UK] December 2, 2002

Darwin Dispatch

Theatre of the Absurd

The law that once protected refugees from East Timor is now being used to expel them, writes David Fickling

Absurdity is a concept particularly popular with politicians treading on shaky moral ground. Invoke absurdity, and you immediately set yourself up on the side of reason, while ushering all right-thinking people to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with you. Those you criticise are self-evidently in the wrong. They are just making themselves look foolish by disagreeing with you.

These days, the Australian government sees a great deal of absurdity in the world. According to the prime minister, John Howard, Oxfam's criticism of the Pacific solution - by which the government spent more than A$500m (£140m) quartering a few hundred refugees on a couple of Pacific islands - is absurd.

His immigration minister, Philip Ruddock, levelled the same criticism at federal court justice Graham Hill, when the judge suggested that Australian courts should be allowed to review the results of immigration decisions. A few years back, opposition leader Kim Beazley apparently outed himself as absurd too - he suggested that asylum seekers should be granted temporary visas while their cases are sorted out.

For the past year such absurdities have been on the decline, as the flow of boats transporting refugees from Indonesia's southern shores to Australia's northern coasts has dried up. The government has basked in the success of its fortress Australia policy, and devoted itself to tying up loose ends.

One of those loose ends is a 47-year-old man sitting in the front room of his single-storey house, in the suburban sprawl of east Darwin. Domingos da Silva was working in Dili's Hotel Turismo 27 years ago this Saturday, when Indonesian troops parachuted into the East Timorese capital to take over the 10-day-old republic.

In the massacres which followed, a quarter of East Timor's population was killed, some 200,000 people. The beach opposite the hotel, he says, was covered in the bodies of the dead, washed up from the sea and left behind by the Indonesian army.

Like many East Timorese of his generation, he did not accept the occupation with ease. For 19 years he worked as a coordinator between the civilian independence movement and the Fretilin (the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor) guerrillas, arranging shipment of supplies and meetings between the groups. It was not an easy or safe job. In 1989 several of his close associates were arrested by Indonesian intelligence, and he learned that someone had informed on him.

Three years later some of his Indonesian friends told him that they had seen his name on an army blacklist of suspected insurgents. Those on blacklists were routinely arrested, beaten, and, at times of unrest, killed. Unsurprisingly, he decided it was time to leave, and after a month in Bali - then, as now, one of Indonesia's prime gateways to Australia - he obtained visas to come to Australia with his four children and pregnant wife.

Since 1994 he has lived and worked in Darwin, and despite the East Timorese and Fretilin flags on top of his television and the distinctly south-east Asian heat of his house in the build-up to Darwin's monsoon season, he and his family are, to all intents and purposes, naturalised Australians.

Life here has not always been perfect. Last year, his father died back in Dili, but his temporary protection visa meant that if he was to attend the funeral, he would have to give up all hope of returning to Australia. But in general the country had treated him well. Until last month.

In November, he received a letter from the immigration department explaining that, with East Timor's independence officially recognised since May this year, he was free to return to his home country. So free, in fact, that if he did not manage to persuade the refugee review tribunal to let him stay, he would be chucked out in 28 days.

The response of Darwin residents to the Da Silvas' plight has been uncharacteristically warm, in a country not always famed for its hospitality to refugees. The Northern Territory administration promised to support their case, as did state representatives in Canberra. Locals show a degree of support for the dozen East Timorese families in the city which is often absent in other, supposedly more cosmopolitan areas of Australia.

The city has always had a strong kindred spirit with its neighbour across the Arafura Sea. In the massacres which followed East Timor's independence vote in 1999, Darwin hospitals treated many of the wounded. During the long years of Indonesian subjection, East Timor and Darwin were closer to each other than either was to their own capital cities, and visitors to the Northern Territory will notice that a certain spirit of independence flourishes here too.

But the government has so far turned a stony face to such appeals. No one expects the refugee review tribunal to allow them to remain, and Mr Da Silva says he is putting his hope in the compassion of the immigration minister, Mr Ruddock.

The staunch defenders of rich-country immigration systems are quick to defend this situation. They say that the violence and civil chaos he and his family fled from have now vanished. They explain that laws must be applied blindly, without recognition of individual circumstances.

The thing is, they are missing the point. Criticising the government's adamantine attitude to these refugees is not about being merciful in the application of a law. It is about questioning the justice of the law itself. Laws should exist for a reason, not in a self-justifying vacuum. The purported reason behind the existence of temporary protection visas is that they allow a country to absorb otherwise unsustainable numbers of refugees at times of crisis, before returning them when peace breaks out.

Less than 120 Timorese do not constitute an unsustainable refugee problem. The proof of their sustainability is that they have been in Australia for the best part of a decade, without anybody noticing.

So here is a family of seven naturalised Australians who are being told they must uproot themselves to another country, which many of them do not remember and in which only three of them speak the language. Their eldest son, who is studying IT at Northern Territory university, is expected to drop out of his course quarter of the way through and look for work in a country where half the population is unemployed and 70 per cent of the infrastructure was destroyed by west Timorese militias in 1999.

Their youngest daughter, who knows no other country besides Australia, is expected to muddle by in a country with a rudimentary education system which teaches in two languages, neither of which she understands.

The Da Silvas are not the vanguard of some fictitious wave of asylum-seekers, trying to exploit the system. They are simply Australian residents who do not see why, having been embraced by this country in their time of need, they should suddenly watch it tear up the lives they have established here.

Ultimately, if the Da Silvas do fail in their appeal and are sent back to East Timor, it will not be because they tried to cheat any system, or because they are a drain on Northern Territory budgets, or because they have committed any crime in Australia. It will be because the Gradgrindian application of Australia's immigration laws pays no heed or mercy to individuals, or to families. Their lives must be toyed with, and their opportunities circumscribed, to preserve an idea. That is the real absurdity.


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