EDITORIAL: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Let East Timorese refugees stay
, November 30, 2002
From the late 1980s until 1999, when a referendum in East Timor voted decisively to withdraw from Indonesia, several thousand East Timorese people managed to get to Australia, where successive governments gave them protection visas acknowledging that they were refugees. A significant number were students studying in Indonesia at the time of the Santa Cruz massacre in 1991.
Since then, they have lived, married and worked in Australia, settling into Australia successfully, without any intention of returning to their country of birth.
In November 1999, in response to a surge of boat people who arrived in Australia illegally from the Middle East, the Federal Government introduced what were known as Temporary Protection Visas, which were given for a three year period to people who had been granted refugee status.Intention
The clear intention of these visas was to enable the Federal Government to return people to their countries of origin, if the situation in those countries changed, and to make Australia less attractive to both people smugglers and desperate people wanting to get here.
This measure had little or no effect on the number of boat people coming to Australia, which rose in both 2000 and 2001, until the trade in people was brought to an abrupt end by the Howard Government's "Pacific solution", which prevented boat people arriving in Australia, and relocated them to camps in Nauru and Papua New Guinea, pending a resolution of their claims for refugee status.
It did, however, have two unintended consequences, one affecting Pakistanis who had been masquerading as Afghans, the other East Timorese.
The Melbourne Age
recently reported that as many as 1500 people with Temporary Protection Visas, claiming to be from Afghanistan, are actually from Pakistan.
The most notorious case occurred last July, when the Age
, which has strongly supported a policy of leniency towards boat people, and criticised the Immigration Minister, revealed that Ali Bakhtiyari - the father of two boys who escaped from the Woomera Detention Centre then vainly sought asylum at the British consulate in Melbourne - who claimed to be an Afghan refugee, was unknown in the village from which he claimed to come, and was actually from Pakistan.
The article, which was not refuted, indicated that Bakhtiyari was not entitled to a refugee visa.
In any case, because the Taliban regime in Afghanistan has been overthrown, the Department will be able to deny them refugee status, and order their repatriation to Pakistan or Afghanistan.
Far different is the status of the 1800 East Timorese, who have received Temporary Protection Visas over the past three years, but have lived in Australia much longer, and now face the prospect of deportation back to East Timor.
According to church agencies, 84 Timorese were advised recently that their visa applications were unsuccessful, and they had 28 days to leave Australia. It is obviously true that the East Timorese now in Australia have no fear of Indonesian persecution, which was the ground on which the original grant of refugee status was made.
However, having lived in Australia for up to 10 years, they should be treated in the same way as permanent residents, who have entered Australia legally with the intention of settling in this country.
In light of the fact that the East Timorese have lived in Australia for years, that often family members in Australia have permanent visas or have been naturalised, it would be cruel to separate families by forcing some family members to return to East Timor.
Further, a compassionate approach would undoubtedly foster good relations with the people and government of East Timor, with whom Australia has close historical ties.Compassion
It would also demonstrate that while Australians are not willing to be duped by people smugglers, it is compassionate towards those people who have come to this country as refugees.
There is a precedent for such an approach.
In 1989, the communist regime in Beijing violently clamped down on pro-democracy student demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, Beijing.
Following the round-up of student activists in China, the Hawke Government offered permanent residence in Australia to Chinese students.
Over the course of the next three or four years, over 20,000 Chinese students were given permanent residence in this country.
The case for the Timorese refugees, already in Australia, is far more compelling.
- Peter Westmore is President of the National Civic Council