Subject: Timorese asylum seeker calls for Australian solidarity

Received from Joyo Indonesian News

Green Left Weekly January 29, 2003

Timorese asylum seeker calls for Australian solidarity

BY VANNESSA HEARMAN

MELBOURNE Fivo Freitas is 28 years old, he sought asylum in Austraalia after leaving East Timor in 1999. Now he is preparing for his application for asylum-seeker status to be rejected once again by the Refugee Review Tribunal.

Each Friday, the RRT is rejecting a number of similar applications from Timorese, marking the end of a long road for people who have waited for up to ten years to see if they can stay permanently in Australia.

The long wait, conveniently for the Australian government, has coincided with East Timor's independence from the Indonesian occupying forces. East Timor is now a safe, stable, independent country to which the asylum seekers could return. At least, this seems to be the view from the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs, which is basing its assessment of each asylum seeker case on the current situation in East Timor, not the situation from which asylum seekers fled the territory.

“I came from East Timor in 1999 to get away from the increasingly violent activities of the militias. It was only a few months before the ballot. I had been involved in the East Timor Student Solidarity Council. I was lucky to get out, not as lucky as many of my friends.

“As many people know, the country was almost completely destroyed and people were displaced in 1999. What will I do back [in East Timor]? Imagine all 1600 [Timorese asylum seekers in Australia] forcibly returned to East Timor to no job, no education, no home to go to. How will the country cope?”

Freitas is critical of the Australian government's assistance to East Timor, arguing that while trumpeting its humanitarian assistance, it is creating a humanitarian disaster. “[The government had] an opportunity to help East Timorese 10 years ago, but of course that was when Indonesia was in power and they tried to throw us out, arguing that we were Portuguese. Now they say our country is already safe and we must go back.”

It is doubtful that East Timor's poor infrastructure and high unemployment can withstand the influx of the returnees. Many of those who fled now have nothing to return to and may face community resentment in the face of fierce competition for jobs, housing and schooling. Early this month, suspected militia bands attacked villages in Atsabe and Bazartete sub-districts and killed several people. A senior Timorese official has subsequently called for increased Australian assistance to maintain security in the border areas.

According to Freitas, several families previously living in Darwin have returned voluntarily after having their appeals rejected. “They could see no way out. But this is not a solution for all of us, we have to campaign for community support against the government's policies.”

The loss of an appeal before the RRT results in being cut off from the Asylum Seekers' Assistance Scheme (ASAS) allowance, loss of access to Medicare and loss of the right-to-work visa. “This is, in effect, a campaign to starve us out of Australia. Many Timorese are renting in the private rental market. These people no longer have any income.” The asylum seekers have no access to Centrelink benefits, only the ASAS payment which is 89% of a Centrelink special benefit.

An East Timor Taskforce, consisting of church groups, welfare agencies and local government, plan a program of support for those Timorese who have lost ASAS allowance, Medicare and the right to work. The local inner-city council, the City of Yarra, where 600-700 Timorese asylum seekers live, began to raise funds last year to provide assistance for Timorese asylum seekers.

Freitas says this can only be a small drop in the ocean, however, and the assistance is limited to providing funds for doctors' visits and medicines. “It is still up to the government to resolve this situation. The City of Yarra funds can only provide small emergency help, but this cannot help everybody who has lost his or her income.

“The Timorese need medical assistance more than ever they are suffering high stress and panic because they are not sure of their situation.”

Freitas argues that: “I think it is outrageous that while we can work and have to pay taxes, we can't go to university. If young people like me want to go to university, we have to pay full fees like international students. We have had interrupted schooling, suffered trauma because of war and have very low incomes. This is just another policy to exclude us from gaining an education.

“If the Australian government really wants to help, they should be educating us here, building links between East Timor and Australia.”

He says it is ironic that the government is handing out AusAID scholarships to Timorese students from East Timor, but charges full fees to asylum seekers.

“We want Australian solidarity for us again just like whenn you fought for us in 1999. People are living in limbo right now. I think we have made a good contribution to Australian society, it is only right that after treating us like political footballs, that we can finally get on with our lives — here in Australia until we decide it's the right time to go back and rebuiild our country.

“We love East Timor, we want to be there, but now is not the right time. We don't want to be deported or starved out of Australia either.”

Freitas urges people to get involved in campaigns for the Timorese asylum seekers to stay. There is a campaign underway demanding that immigration minister Philip Ruddock grant a special protection visa, however it is unclear how successful lobbying efforts will be without concerted public pressure.

“The suffering of refugees isn't just limited to that inside Australia's detention centres”, Freitas reminds us. The Timorese asylum seekers have been allowed to live in the community, but Ruddock's hidden war against them needs to be exposed, as does the attempts to drive them back to East Timor.

Preventing the deportation of East Timorese asylum seekers is set to become a major campaign priority of the Refugee Action Collective of Victoria over the coming months. RAC is working in collaboration with Melbourne's East Timorese community on an intensive community education and lobbying campaign, which will be launched in early March with a public forum featuring Freitas.

RAC plans to use the campaign to pressure Ruddock to allow the Timorese to stay, as well as to lay a strong foundation of widespread community support. This will help prepare for direct protest action if the Timorese are denied refugee status and forcibly returned to East Timor.

Given the Australian community's special bond with the East Timorese, RAC is confident of developing a strong, broad and effective campaign. To get involved or to find out more, phone Gillian on 0421 109 474, or email <gilliandavy@yahoo.com.au>.


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