Subject: RT: Some Hope for Timor Asylum Seekers in Australia

Some Hope for Timor Asylum Seekers in Australia

Feb. 13

— CANBERRA (Reuters) - Australia offered a glimmer of hope to 1,600 East Timorese asylum seekers threatened with deportation nearly a decade after settling here, saying some married or skilled applicants may not be sent back.

Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock offered the concession Thursday after meeting two young East Timorese and five Melbourne-area mayors fighting to allow the asylum seekers to remain in their adopted homeland.

"These are residents, citizens, people who have children, mortgages. They are very much part of our community," Yarra mayor Sue Corby told reporters following the meeting.

Advocates for the asylum seekers said the promise of visas for East Timorese who had married Australian citizens, had Australian children or had business skills could help up to 560 men, women and children stay in Australia.

The fate of the East Timorese has been in question since Australia began rejecting their refugee claims in September, some 10 years after 1,700 people fleeing violence in the then-Indonesian territory sought asylum in nearby Australia.

When the fledgling nation gained formal independence last May, Australian immigration officials said it was safe for the East Timorese to return home.

But former Dili student Fivo Freitas said most of the East Timorese had fully integrated into the Australia.

"They grew up with Australian people, they go to school together, we play football together, we play soccer together, we eat Vegemite together. And they are disappointed to have to go back to East Timor," 28-year-old Freitas told reporters.

LONG SUFFERING

Most of the East Timorese entered Australia on tourist visas in the 1990s and lived in the community awaiting refugee claims. The process was delayed by litigation over potential Portuguese nationality for the asylum seekers, since East Timor was a Portuguese colony before it fell under Indonesian occupation.

A spokesman for the immigration minister said Ruddock would intervene once the refugee claim process had failed, awarding either spousal visas to those who had married Australians, or skilled migrant places for those who qualified.

But he said Australia could not give special consideration to the group as a whole because other nationalities suffering under Australia's tough immigration policies would complain.

He said Ruddock was under heavy pressure from lobby groups who argue Australia's special relationship with East Timor and its long- suffering people should be taken into account.

East Timorese helped Australian troops fighting the Japanese during World War II, stopping their advance through the South Pacific toward Australia, and Australia led a U.N. peacekeeping mission to East Timor after its bloody 1999 independence vote.

About 1,000 Australian peacekeepers are in East Timor.

Copyright 2003 Reuters News Service. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


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