Subject: AU: Aussie immigration minister rejects Gusmao visa plea

The Australian April 12, 2003

Ruddock rejects Gusmao visa plea

By Megan Saunders

IMMIGRATION Minister Philip Ruddock has rejected a plea by the East Timor President, Xanana Gusmao, to allow up to 1600 temporary visa holders to remain in Australia because his country is too poor to take them back.

Mr Ruddock said that it was "a little disingenuous" of Mr Gusmao to argue that East Timor could not afford to feed them while encouraging East Timorese to return from Indonesia. "I think it's pertinent to note that there are 30,000 East Timorese in Indonesia where in fact East Timor is saying 'please send them back'," Mr Ruddock told The Weekend Australian.

"I think what's happening here is that advocacy groups are essentially pushing him to raise these matters. I don't buy the argument."

Both Mr Gusmao and East Timor consul-general in Australia, Abel Guterres, had asked the Howard Government for special consideration of the issue. The President raised the issue personally with Foreign Minister Alexander Downer a fortnight ago, while Mr Guterres met with Mr Ruddock less than a month ago.

In recent weeks, many of the group have lost their fortnightly refugee allowances after losing their cases on appeal to the Refugee Review Tribunal.

They now have to rely on charity for several months while they appeal directly to Mr Ruddock to use his discretion.

The minister is determined to deal with the situation on a "case by case" basis and has so far allowed 164 to stay on the basis of their spouse being Australian or having other close ties. A further 19 have already returned while 13 died before their cases were resolved. The rest are in limbo.

Mr Guterres this week argued that the cases of East Timorese returning from Australia and Indonesia were different. "It's another 1600 mouths to feed," he said.

"The 30,000 that are in West Timor, they are not living in the comfortable conditions as these 1600 here in Australia. They live in camps, there is a lot of problems."

Pressure is on the Howard Government to resolve the situation, which follows a protracted court battle, in a compassionate way.

Some of the group have been in Australia for more than a decade after fleeing in the wake of the Santa Cruz massacre of 1991.

The Government initially challenged the right of the East Timorese to asylum, saying they had a right to Portuguese residence during the Indonesian occupation and should go there instead.

But after one of the group successfully appealed, the Government agreed to process the claims under the usual refugee criteria ­ claims that haad little chance of success once East Timor became an independent nation.

Labor's immigration spokeswoman described the situation as "absurd", and renewed pressure on the Howard Government to create a special visa class and allow them to stay.

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