Wednesday, March 1, 2000

Australia betrays East Timor refugees

By Chris Latham

One hundred and fifty East Timorese refugees refused to leave the East Hills army barracks in Sydney on February 22. The government was determined to remove the refugees from the camp for a "voluntary" flight home on February 22.

Three hundred local Timorese and their supporters facing 100 police blocked the buses bound for the airport. They managed to delay the departures, but the refugees have now been returned to East Timor. These refugees were amongst the last to leave of those who entered Australia after the bloody events in East Timor last year to leave; such betrayals of East Timorese refugees are not new.

'Safe haven'

In response to the terror unleashed in East Timor after the independence ballot on August 30, the Australian government initially agreed to provide sanctuary only for staff from the United Nations Assistance Mission in East Timor, plus 350 East Timorese staff and their families. On September 8, immigration minister Philip Ruddock announced that an additional 1450 East Timorese would be allowed into Australia under the safe haven legislation.

This legislation, drafted in early 1999 to deal with Kosovar refugees, allows only three-month visas, the holders of which are not allowed to apply for any other form of visa while in Australia.

The "safe havens" are disused military barracks. Individuals are not allowed to leave; if they do they lose access to government services and the minimum government payments of $27 per week per adult and $10 per child.

In December, when the safe haven visas expired, more than 1000 Timorese refugees were returned. Ruddock said on December 6, "The East Timorese were evacuated in September to stay until conditions in East Timor improved ... The United Nations high commissioner for refugees has provided assurances that it is now safe."

This was described as a "voluntary" return. However, Timorese who opted to remain in Australia would receive no government assistance, had no right to work and constantly faced the threat of deportation.

The government ignored the conditions that refugees were returning to: most buildings, infrastructure and crops destroyed, and mass unemployment. A Fretilin representative in Australia, Naldo Rai, said on February 22, "We have contact with relatives in East Timor who say the conditions are very bad. There is no food, no clothing, no houses."

There are reports that refugees who returned to East Timor earlier were provided with only a blanket and a tarpaulin, without rope to tie the tarpaulin down.

Long-term refugees

Many refugees entered Australia after the Dili massacre in 1991. In 1994, the Australian government argued that because these Timorese had the right to request Portuguese citizenship, they did not require Australia's protection.

In 1998, the Federal Court decided that the Refugee Review Tribunal should reconsider Kon Tji Tay's application for asylum because there was no evidence that Portugal would provide protection. The immigration department conducted an appeal throughout 1999.

In addition to mounting numerous legal challenges to the granting of refugee status, the Australian government has conducted a war of attrition. Without refugee status, the Timorese are not eligible to work or to enter educational institutions. The government has ended asylum seeker assistance payments.

On November 9, the government announced that it would end its appeal, but informed the refugees that, since East Timor is now "safe" to return to, they must reapply for asylum under the new Border Protection Act.

The act states that Australia is no longer required to provide protection if alternative avenues for protection exist, such as dual citizenship or potential dual citizenship (that is, with Portugal). The applications will be dealt with individually, making it a lengthy process that will further exhaust the resources and resolve of refugees who have been in Australia for up to 10 years.

In addition, there are still more than 100,000 East Timorese being forced to stay in camps in West Timor, where they were driven in late 1999. The Australian government has done little to secure their release.

A report in the Bali Post newspaper on February 22 said that at least 700 people had died in the camps in the last six months. The refugees are frequently harassed by militias and the military.

Punishing the victims

In November, the government passed the Border Protection Act, among the harshest legislation dealing with refugees in the world. While whipping up nationalist and racist sentiments about "boat people" and "illegals" to justify these legislative attacks, the government tries to assure us that it is nevertheless humane.

However, the government's treatment of the East Timorese refugees is consistent with its general approach of blaming and punishing the victims of Third World poverty and imperialism.

For decades, Australian governments supported the Suharto dictatorship in Indonesia because it gave Australian companies access to Indonesia's natural resources and markets and provided a "stable" environment in which to make profits. Australia gave diplomatic and military support to Indonesia's occupation of East Timor and Australian companies secured access to rich oil and gas fields in the Timor Gap.

But Australian governments weren't just complicit in the deaths of more than 200,000 Timorese since 1975. The Coalition government continued to support Indonesia last year while it displaced more than half of East Timor's population and destroyed most of its economy and infrastructure.

The Australian government rejected evidence of the links between the Indonesian military and the pro-integration militias and in the United Nations, Australian officials argued against the deployment of a non-Indonesian security force during the independence vote.

Now the government is punishing further the victims of its own policy.

For real justice

It should be left to each East Timorese refugee to decide if they want to stay, and much more aid should be made available to rebuild East Timor, thereby giving East Timorese refugees a real choice about returning home.

To assist refugees to return, and to allow visits by East Timorese to Australia, where many will still have relatives and friends, the government should establish a special category of visa, similar to that granted to New Zealand citizens, which allows them to travel freely between the two countries.

To aid development, the government should fund 1000 new scholarships per year for East Timorese to attend Australian higher education institutions.

Massive non-repayable grants and reparations for Australia's support for the war on East Timor should be funded out of a levy on all Australian businesses that have profited from investment in Indonesia and East Timor.

It is vital that the Australian people act now to safeguard the human rights of East Timorese in Australia and East Timor. Resistance is supporting a national day of action on May 13, organised by Action in Solidarity with Indonesia and East Timor, to demand "Justice for East Timor! Justice for all refugees!".

From Green Left Weekly #395
Resistance magazine and Green Left Weekly will keep you informed about the struggle for justice in East Timor and the solidarity campaigns.

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