Subject: AU: Timor peace risk to refugee visas

The Australian

December 27, 2001, Thursday

Timor peace risk to refugee visas

'For some people there will be a lot of resentment if they return home' Liz Biok

Refugee lawyer

Megan Saunders

PROCESSING of asylum claims by 1600 East Timorese in Australia would continue, the Howard Government said yesterday, hosing down fears the refugees' applications would be frozen because of the calmer circumstances in their homeland.

But the Government indicated it would not give the group special consideration when processing claims.

Following Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock's announcement that the processing of claims by Afghan asylum-seekers would be halted with the installation of an interim government in Kabul, the East Timorese raised concerns that the same could apply to them.

Refugee lawyer Liz Biok said some of the Timorese asylum-seekers arrived in Australia eight years ago.

While some could return home, too much time had passed for others, and most felt they could not be repatriated, she said.

"For some people there will be a lot of resentment if they return home," she told ABC radio.

"The population in East Timor has a view that they have lived here in the lap of luxury for the past eight years, which for most of them isn't true."

She said repatriating people "denies the fact that the East Timorese have waited here in good faith, hoping the Australian Government would assess their refugee claims".

Ms Biok called for a special humanitarian visa class to be established for the East Timorese who wanted to stay in Australia.

But a spokesman for Mr Ruddock said the changed circumstances in East Timor after the independence vote would be taken into consideration. And in a sign the asylum-seekers are unlikely to get special consideration, he said the claims would be processed "on their merits" against the criteria.

Dismissing fears that processing of claims would cease, he said: "The processing is continuing as normal."

The latest worry in the case of the 1600 asylum-seekers follows a protracted appeal to the federal Government to allow them to stay.

The Government had argued that as the group had an automatic right to Portuguese residence during the Indonesian occupation of East Timor, they should be seeking asylum in Portugual rather than Australia.

But after one of the group was successful in a court appeal, the Government did not press ahead with the argument, and agreed to process the claims based on the criteria for refugee status.

It is understood most of the claims are still in the first stage of processing, although a small number have been rejected and have been appealed to the Refugee Review Tribunal.

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