Subject: IPS: Timorese Refugees' Policy Immoral

Policy on Timorese Refugees 'Immoral' - Critics

Kalinga Seneviratne Inter Press Service:

SYDNEY, Apr 2 (IPS) - Australia's international profile, already hurt by criticism against its role in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, is under fire for is its desire to boot out East Timorese asylum seekers who fled the former Indonesian territory more than a decade ago.

The Australian government has through the years approved very few of the refugee applications of the more than 1,600 asylum seekers who fled East Timor after the 1991 Dili massacre by the Indonesian military. Now, they say that peace has returned to East Timor and want the people to go back there.

But in a speech last week, East Timorese President Xanana Gusmao slammed Australia's policy as lacking in compassion.

Most of these asylum seekers have put down their roots here and their children have spent their formative years being educated in Australian schools while waiting for their refugee status to be determined by Canberra.

Take for instance Fivo Frietas, whose case epitomises the irony of Australia's legalistic approach to the refugee issue. He was awarded the 'Young Australian of the Year' earlier this year for his services to the East Timorese community in Australia -- and five days later received his deportation notice.

"Well, I'm the Young Australian of the Year but I'm still an asylum seeker," laughed the 28 year-old Frietas.

"My people here have already integrated their lives, so please let them stay, they are part of Australia,'' he pleaded. "I'm an Aussie, but the government doesn't recognise (and says) 'you're not Aussie'."

Gusmao, who was on a private visit to Australia, said that the reception of the more than 1,600 East Timorese living in Australia "will not occur great hardships on the Australian economy".

But for new, impoverished country, they "will merely constitute another 1,600 mouths to be fed (and) dozens of more families that we are unable to shelter". He has made a personal appeal to Australian Prime Minister John Howard to let the East Timorese remain in Australia until his country is able to get on its feet economically. It is unlikely to be soon, he added.

"They (government) say everything is safe in East Timor. Indonesians have gone, new government has been elected and it is a democratic state" explained Elizabeth Biok, a solicitor who represents the International Commission of Jurists.

"This puts the asylum seekers in a terrible position. We have no legal grounds to fight. Only hope is to appeal to the minister (of immigration) on humanitarian grounds,'' said Biok, who said that the East Timorese refugees have been in a legal limbo for over a decade and since 1995 she and many others have been fighting a legal battle on their behalf.

Since East Timor became an independent country in May last year, those who have been granted what is called a Temporary Protection Visa (TPV) have been told that this visa will expire soon and they need to go back home.

Two months ago, most of them received letters from the immigration department giving them 28 days to prove that they are legally entitled to remain in Australia. The immigration department has already rejected over 475 cases, leaving the rest of the 1,130 with virtually no hope of getting permanent residency here.

But Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock refuse to concede any ethical ground. If people decide to avail themselves of judicial procedures - and a lot of people do - and they remain in Australia while they exercise these entitlements, that puts no ethical obligation on the government," he argued on Australia Broadcasting Corp on Sunday.

Speaking on the same programme, the representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Australia, Michel Gabaudan, said that there is no legal obligation for the Australian government to allow the East Timorese to remain in Australia.

He said Canberra has honoured its obligations under international law and " once the circumstances (under which they came here) have been exceeded, there's nothing in international law which says (that the) governments that have accepted refugees on humanitarian grounds or temporary protection have continuing obligations".

While conceding the legal arguments, refugee activists argue that Australia does have an ethical obligation to the East Timorese.

Susan Connelly, a Catholic nun of the Josephine order, says that this is the time for Australians to show gratitude to the 40,000 East Timorese who died helping 300 Australians soldiers to escape the Japanese occupation during the Pacific War.

"How do we begin to repay that?" she asked during Sunday's television programme on East Timorese refugees. "One thing we could do is not to send back 1,600 (Timorese) who are basically Australians and who would be a huge drain to the economy there," she added.

"(They) will not fit in to the society, simply because the fact is that they are Australian and all they need is a piece of paper,'' she explained.

Andrew McNaughton, convenor of the Australian East Timor Association, argues that "oil has been a factor all the way through" and this has been "very damaging to the interests of the East Timorese people".

He points out that these refugees were left in legal limbo in the mid-1990s because Australia had signed the Timor Gap Treaty with the Indonesian government to share the oil wealth there and Canberra did not want to ruffle the sensitivities of the Suharto government by granting these people refugee status here. Among those featured on Australian television in recent weeks are young East Timorese who have grown up here, such as Pedro Cham.

Cham, who grew up in Melbourne and plans to sit for his university entrance exam this year, has been school captain, won three academic awards and holds a part-time job.

His appeal to the government's Refugee Review Tribunal for permanent residency status has been rejected and his future is in the hands of the immigration minister, who can still grant him that on special case basis. Cham says his studies are being affected by the uncertainty he faces. "I can't cope with it any more," he complained on television.

Biok said one of those rejected is a 72-year-old woman who needs regular medication for a heart problem. "There's nothing for her there. No support, no medication," she pointed out.

Said Biok: "It is a very cruel process. Its absolutely immoral.'' (END/2003)

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