Subject: RA: Concern over the return of failed asylum seekers

EAST TIMOR: Concern over the return of failed asylum seekers 18/11/2002 20:40:42 | Asia Pacific Programs

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The East Timor government says unsuccessful asylum-seekers forced to return from Australia will be a burden on the country's fledgeling economy. A quirk of the former Portuguese colony's status meant the claims of some 1,700 asylum-seekers were not resolved after their arrival in the early 1990's, and they are now being asked to leave. A spokesman for the Immigration Minister, Philip Ruddock, says while some cases may be granted permanent residency on humanitarian grounds, there will be no unilateral exemptions. East Timor Foreign Minister Jose Ramos-Horta says he has made several unsuccessful appeals to Australia to defer the return of the asylum-seekers for a few years, if not for good.


RAMOS-HORTA: The Australian side knows well how fragile are our institutions, our economy, we have had to reabsorb back into East Timor in the last two years, a quarter of a million refugees and displaced persons from West Timor and our economy is almost non-existent, unemployment is very high. And these people in Australia are not taking jobs from anyone, they are good, law abiding people so why not let them stay three to five years, organise some special programs for them to learn English, for those who do not know English, some vocational skills and then yes, they return voluntarily. But it seems the Australian government has not been impressed, persuaded by this very modest, very humble, very rational and constructive proposal on our side.

DE MASI: Now a spokesman for the Immigration Minister has said Australia is contributing quite considerable amounts of money towards East Timor's reconstruction and that these asylum seekers would actually be able to contribute to and hasten that rebuilding process.

RAMOS-HORTA: Well, that is a bit stretching the argument and the imagination. The fact of the matter is that most of them so far do not have skills, becuae they have been in legal limbo for so many years in Australia, Australia was never able to grant them permanent residents so they could study, work, learn skills. Most of them return to East Timor without money because they were not able to work, most of them return without qualifications because they were not given opportunity to study to be trained. So their contribution to East Timor will be very, very negligible, quite the contrary, they will be a burden to society here.

DE MASI: What opportunities and expectations do these peope have then upon their return?

RAMOS-HORTA: They cannot expect anything, opportunities are non-existent literally because of the unemployment situation here. We are just starting our independence, rebuilding the country. Most institutions are very incipient, fragile, new ,there is really nothing they can expect.

DE MASI: For those who might have come [to Australia] at a very young age, would you have any concerns about identity and how they might have no links with East Timor. Would you see that as a potential problem?

RAMOS-HORTA: It's a bit heart-breaking. Many of them grew up in Australia, some were born in Australia, some have been here as far as I know ten years. Some of them, they don't speak a word of Tetum, they don't speak a word of Portuguese, they speak English, they are very Australian and they've been told they have to leave. I know a girl only six or seven years old she was born in Australia, her parents have received I understand notice to leave, the girl is completely confused because she was born in Australia, she'd like to stay in Australia, all her friends are Australian.

Australia is a vast continent, very rich, has been very generous to East Timor obviously. We all acknowledge that Australia is a friend so why not assist us an extra bit by giving them a conditional visa? To allowing these people to stay a three to five years more until our economy gets off the ground or at least let the young ones settle in Australia? They don't make the slightest difference to Australia's unemployment problem or Australia's immigration intake because they are so few.

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18/11/2002 20:40:42 | Asia Pacific Programs

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