Subject: The Age: Do they still call East Timor home?

The Age March 2 2003

Do they still call East Timor home?

The Lims arrived in Australia in 1994, found work, bought a house, had a second child. Now, like hundreds of other Timorese asylum seekers, they may be forced back to their native Dili. Larry Schwartz reports.

The boys have been asking their father why they must leave family and friends in suburban Melbourne and go to another country.

Kium Kit Lim says: "They ask me, "Why must we go to East Timor? Why can't we stay here?" I say it's because we came here late. The little one says, "I'm an Aussie. You go back. I'll stay here."

The elder of the two boys, Tommy, 8, was just a few months old when he accompanied his father, a 39-year-old printer, and his mother, Man Ing Sam, as they fled their native Dili in 1994. Like his brother, Australian-born Jeffrey, 5, all that Tommy knows of East Timor is what he has seen on TV.

Tommy is troubled by images of conflict. What do they know of East Timor? "People fighting," says the youngster with Star Wars characters emblazoned on his yellow singlet. "Fighting," he repeats softly.

The Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs last month notified more than 1000 East Timorese asylum seekers that their applications for permanent residence had been refused and they had 28 days (plus seven working days from the date the notice of decision was sent) to appeal to the Refugee Review Tribunal or be forced to leave Australia.

Kium Kit Lim says he fears violence, despite the country's independence from Indonesia. He has heard that there are people in Dili who could "finish you up for maybe $100". "That's what I'm scared of," he says.

Etervina Groenen is an early-1980s migrant from East Timor and was, until last year, its official representative in Australia. She devotes much of her time to helping asylum seekers at the North Richmond Community Health Centre and as lay minister at St Matthias Anglican church in Abbotsford.

"Many have suffered terribly," she says. She has found extreme distress among many still traumatised after years in Australia. Some have confided instances of physical and mental abuse, including torture and rape. Men have told her of digital rape by Indonesian soldiers "to break the spirit".

Most of the 1650 East Timorese asylum seekers live in Victoria. Some have been in Australia for more than a decade.

"It's a long time to put your life on hold," Ms Groenen says, "where you are wondering if something terrible is going to happen ­ that you are gooing to be sent back.

"Maybe people in Australia think these people are just being paranoid. But if you live under that constant fear for a long time, and you don't have a chance to put that behind you because you worry about your future, it is very difficult to build trust."

Processing of cases recommenced last June after a delay of several years. The delay had occurred after the Refugee Review Tribunal in 1995 raised questions on whether East Timorese refugees should not instead apply for citizenship of Portugal, which administered East Timor for more than 250 years until Indonesian occupation in 1975.

A specially convened bench of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal in October 2000 heard a "test case" and decided the asylum seeker was a refugee and not entitled to Portuguese nationality. But the applications were not dealt with again until after independence.

Mr Lim and his family were among the first 168 applicants considered. Each was refused protection last September; none so far has been successful.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees late last year ended refugee status for all who fled in 1999, when militias backed by the Indonesian military carried out systematic killings and destruction after an overwhelming UN referendum vote for independence.

Among those seeking refuge then, 27-year-old Fivo Freitas hosts an East Timorese program on Radio 3ZZZ and has contributed so much as a voluntary community worker that he recently received an Australian of the Year award from the City of Yarra, whose mayor is among four in Melbourne actively lobbying on behalf of East Timorese residents.

"This was a shock for me," Mr Freitas says. "I received the award and only five days after received the letter saying, well, you have to leave in 28 days … I came here (to) rebuild my life in this country. I wanted too start thinking about my future. (When) I heard that they want to send us back to our country, I thought, "Oh my God, what have I been doing?"

Most here had arrived earlier. Among them the Lim family, whose chances of remaining in Australia were further set back in January when the Refugee Review Tribunal upheld the department's decision to reject their application. Mr Lim says he and his family fled East Timor because there was "no law and order". They had applied for asylum on arrival in 1994, citing Mr Lim's support for the resistance movement in East Timor.

As Hakka-speaking ethnic Chinese, the family fears harassment if forced to return. They have sent an appeal to Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock to intervene on humantiarian grounds. He fears he would have little prospect of finding suitable work or appropriate education for his sons. "I already have a house here," he says."I have a secure job. I'm set up nearly perfectly here in Australia."

Mr Lim says he knew no English when he arrived in Melbourne on a visitor's visa and found it difficult at first to distinguish between similar sounding words "chicken" and "kitchen" at weekly lessons in a Uniting Church hall. He has worked as a printer for six years, has a mortgage on the family three-bedroom, brick-veneer home and pays instalments on two cars.

The family lives close to cousins, aunts, uncles, parents and grandparents. Most relatives are Australian citizens. Mr Lim takes pride in his financial independence and the achievements for his family. He has permission to continue work while awaiting the minister's decision.

Mr Lim's employer, Steve Michaelides, has written to authorities in support of the family's asylum bid. "I think it's extremely unfair and unjust," he says. "He came to this country a long time ago for protection. He was permitted to work and to establish a life here and … he has become aa very constructive and tremendous contributor to our community."

For Mr Michaelides, Mr Lim's predicament recalls that of his own father, a Greek-Cypriot migrant who came to Australia in 1948 and founded a printing business and community newspaper.

"His (Mr Lim's) attitude towards life and his responsibilities towards Australia is fantastic," Mr Michaelides says. "He's a very genuine person. I think that his situation is very unfair as is that of many of the East Timorese that have been allowed to establish a life in our country … Their children are Australian more than East Timorese and to all of a sudden pull all of that out from under them, I think, is unjust and incredibly disturbing."

The Government is believed to have considered pleas to create a special visa category along the lines of the 1997 visa for Chinese students in Australia at the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre. But a spokesman for Mr Ruddock, Steve Ingram, said federal cabinet had decided East Timorese asylum seekers "would be treated equally with other nationalities" and the Government did not favour a "discriminatory package".

Mr Ingram said "several hundred" had so far been notified by the department that they did not meet refugee criteria and "a couple of dozen" decisions had already been upheld in the Refugee Review Tribunal; asylum seekers could then either appeal to the Federal Court or directly to Mr Ruddock.

Mr Ruddock had intervened already in several cases and indicated that he was most likely to do so when asylum seekers including East Timorese had married Australian citizens, particularly where their children were citizens. He would also look favourably on those who had set up businesses or were able to show business skills or acumen.

Mr Ingram said the minister had indicated he would find it most difficult to justify intervening on behalf of a single person without relatives in Australia and with most family in East Timor.

Solicitor David Manne, co-ordinator of the Fitzroy-based Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre, which represents more than 600 East Timorese on refugee and immigration matters, says there is an urgent need for the Government to reconsider its policy on East Timorese asylum seekers. "The clear and compelling solution is to create a special humanitarian visa that would grant them permanent residence," he says.

Mr Manne says tribunal members routinely found that East Timorese applicants had strong cases for refugee status when they first applied for asylum and, had their applications not been "frozen", they would have been granted refugee status all that time ago.

"They are also finding that, despite the significant changes in East Timor since, these people overwhelmingly still have clear and compelling humanitarian claims," Mr Manne says.

"The urgent creation of a humanitarian visa class would not only be entirely consistent with what decision-makers are discovering as they examine East Timorese cases; it would also seem, as a matter of fairness, of decency, and of equity, the only solution to fully and properly recognise their special situation."

photo: Kium Kit Lim, his wife Man Ing Sam, Jeffrey and Tommy, front.


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