Subject: SMH editorial: East Timorese a special case

Sydney Morning Herald April 16, 2003


East Timorese a special case

Three and half years after East Timor voted for independence, 1500 East Timorese asylum seekers are still in Australia. For many it is more than a decade since they escaped the former Portuguese colony's murderous Indonesian regime. Some had fled the 1991 massacre of about 200 East Timorese in Dili's Santa Cruz cemetery. While the bureaucracy has dithered, some have married, found work, started businesses and bought homes. Many have had children. They have done the things other Australians do. But they are not Australians. They have been here on temporary protection visas which have lately expired. The Immigration Minister, Philip Ruddock, says it is safe for them to go home.

The East Timorese have, instead, been applying - unsuccessfully - for refugee status. About 1200 applications have failed and the rest can be expected to meet the same fate. If their appeals also fail, the East Timorese can go to court or, more likely, to the minister. Mr Ruddock will then decide the fate of these men, women and about 600 children under 18 (many born here). Mr Ruddock has indicated that those with close links with Australia - such as an Australian spouse - will be viewed sympathetically. Most of the East Timorese will be able to demonstrate such links. The strength of their local ties is evident in the very vocal support they have found in Melbourne, where most live. However, Mr Ruddock has not offered the blanket support the East Timorese are seeking. He believes at least some should return to East Timor.

Mr Ruddock is concerned that making an exception for the East Timorese would become a precedent, particularly for 10,000 people of other nationalities who have also been here for 10 years, lawfully or unlawfully, and want to stay. But the case of the East Timorese is special, dragged out for years by a government-initiated wrangle over whether they were citizens of Portugal and had claims there. That was not resolved until October 2000. In any event, they could not have returned much before then because of the instability in East Timor. The repatriation of refugees is, of course, a generally desirable goal. But after a delay of so many years, and one not of their own making, these East Timorese are, indeed, special cases demanding flexible and compassionate ministerial discretion. To expel them would most certainly be justice denied.

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