Subject: Ultimatum to East Timorese: why should you stay?

Ultimatum to East Timorese: why should you stay?

By Andrew West November 17 2002 The Sun-Herald

Under the threat of deportation, the Lay family celebrated the eighth anniversary of their arrival in Australia at their Fairfield home yesterday. Photo: Sean Davey

The Immigration Department has written to about 1,800 East Timorese asking them to show cause why they should be allowed to remain in Australia.

Many of the refugees have been in Australia for up to 10 years.

If Australia deports them, they will return to a country with 70 per cent unemployment, where about half the buildings are still in ruin from the Indonesian-backed militia rampage of 1999. According to the United Nations, the average annual income is about $2 a day.

The refugees' lawyers argue the East Timorese fall into a special category because they have been kept in legal limbo for a decade.

Most arrived soon after the massacre by Indonesian troops at the Santa Cruz cemetery in December 1991, and the Government issued them with open-ended visas, rather than permanent residency, because some may have been entitled to Portuguese citizenship.

But earlier this year they began receiving letters from the Immigration Department. For most, it was the first time they had heard from Immigration officials since their initial processing.

Over the past decade, they had settled into work, paying taxes, learning English and raising families.

"These people have basically become Australians," said lawyer Liz Biok, who represents the International Commission of Jurists.

"They have fitted very well into Australia, have not caused any social problems and, as any of their employers will tell you, are very hard workers."

Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock claims the East Timorese are simply being treated like any other would-be refugees from poor countries.

A spokeswoman for Mr Ruddock said the people affected were going through the application which included appeal rights.

She said the reason some of them had been in Australia for so long was that they had refused to go to Portugal, where they had dual citizenship.

Instead they had fought the Australian Government, starting under Labor, to recognise them as refugees, all the way to the High Court.

When East Timor was declared independent and their connection with Portugal was severed, the Government began processing their applications afresh, she said.

Henrique Lay, wife Maria, daughters Elizabeth and Margaret, and son Paul yesterday celebrated the eighth anniversary of their arrival in Australia. But hanging over the anniversary was the spectre of deportation.

They have received their second letter from Immigration officials, rejecting their claim for permanent refugee status.

The Lays escaped East Timor in November 1994, after Mr Lay's brother was murdered by the Indonesian special forces unit, Kopassus. Mr Lay, 58, was also arrested, then tortured so badly that his left leg was permanently disabled. He now hobbles with a cane.

Mrs Lay, 55, was assaulted in ways that are simply too traumatising for her to recall publicly.

Immediately after arriving, the Government issued them with bridging visas and work permits, although Mrs Lay's brother, an Australian citizen running a small western Sydney supermarket, initially supported them financially.

The children also enrolled at Lurnea High School for intensive English lessons and later studied at Prairiewood High.

Paul, 23, works in optical dispensing for Essilor Australia.

Elizabeth, 26, works as a kitchen hand at a Catholic nursing home in Surry Hills. Seven months ago she married another East Timorese refugee, Kian Ting Jong, 27, a fabric cutter in a clothing factory, who also faces deportation.

The three of them help support Mr and Mrs Lay and their youngest daughter, Margaret, who attends a special school for young people with learning problems.

Most worrying for Elizabeth is that she and Kian are expecting their first child next year. They had hoped to baptise their baby at Mary Immaculate Catholic Church in Bossley Park, where the family worships weekly, and raise the child as an Australian.

"It would be very hard for me to raise a baby in East Timor," Elizabeth Lay said. "There are not enough doctors and not much of a future. Australia has become our home."

Refugee advocates remain pessimistic. The Immigration Department has rejected every one of 476 cases it has so far assessed, leaving another 1,130 East Timorese with little hope.

Ms Biok said among the refugees were elderly East Timorese who had even helped Australian soldiers stationed on the island during World War II. She says the East Timorese should be treated like the Chinese students who fled to Australia in 1989 after the Tiananmen Square massacre. Former prime minister Bob Hawke issued them with a special class of visa, which the government later converted into permanent residency permits.

Back to November Menu
Main Postings Menu

Note: For those who would like to fax "the powers that be" - CallCenter is a Native 32-bit Voice Telephony software application integrated with fax and data communications... and it's free of charge! Download from