Subject: Age: Bracks plea for Timor's refugees in Australia

also: Family's lament: 'There is nothing to go back to'

The Age June 3, 2002

Bracks plea for Timor's refugees

By Ian Munro

Premier Steve Bracks has asked Prime Minister John Howard not to force 1700 asylum seekers to return to East Timor.

In a letter to the Prime Minister, Mr Bracks said many of the 1400 East Timorese in Melbourne had no homes to return to and did not want to revisit the scenes of trauma and destruction experienced during the Indonesian occupation.

Some of the East Timorese resettled in Australia arrived after the 1991 slaughter of students by Indonesian troops in Dili's Santa Cruz cemetery.

Mr Bracks' letter, sent on Friday, said many asylum seekers no longer had links with East Timor and had made a new life here. "Their children have been educated here, some were born here and others have married."

It said they should be given the choice of remaining to avoid "a potentially tragic outcome".

It called on the Federal Government to use powers under section 417 of the Migration Act to grant permanent residency on compassionate grounds to all East Timorese protection visa applicants who wished to stay.

The appeal to the Federal Government comes after Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock announced in March that his department would soon begin deciding the claims of East Timorese who had sought protection visas.

Mr Bracks announced his appeal to Mr Howard at a Richmond ALP function on Friday night. He said his government had also committed an extra $65,000 to the Refugee Immigration Legal Centre and was ensuring temporary protection visa holders had secure access to public housing and education.

Most of Melbourne's East Timorese live in or around the Richmond public housing estates. The North Richmond Community Health Centre's chief executive, Demos Krouskos, said the political situation had changed in East Timor, but the community's wish to remain here had not. Their experience in East Timor was of dispossession, trauma and violence.

"They have been here at least 10 years, the vast majority of them. They have established a new life. To basically uproot this community would have very severe consequences on the health of those families - the emotional and psychological stresses would be very destructive," he said.

Among the East Timorese is a group of Hakka-speaking ethnic Chinese, some of whom feared persecution if they returned.

Mr Ruddock's spokesman, Steve Ingram, said if there were grounds for using section 417 of the Immigration Act they would be applied on a case-by-case basis, not by group. If section 417 were not invoked, applicants would need to prove a well-founded fear of persecution.

He said most East Timorese arrived during the summer of 1994-95, but processing their claims had been delayed by court cases and because of the changing situation in East Timor.

"If you decide who stays or who goes on the basis of how long they have been here, that starts to degrade or undermine the system," Mr Ingram said.

Richmond MP Richard Wynne said the appeal was "a practical and compassionate response to a group of people who have lived a stateless existence for up to 10 years".

The Age June 3, 2002

Family's lament: 'There is nothing to go back to'

By Ian Munro

Photo: Anna Fam, centre, with granddaughters Carla Chung, left, and Leonarda Chung. "If it's safe to go back why is there a peacekeeping force on the border?"

Picture: Joe Castro

It is more than seven years since Anna Fam, now 70, fled East Timor with her mother and several of her grandchildren. There is not a moment's hesitation when asked if she would choose to return.

She shakes her head. Her granddaughter, Carla Chung, interpreting, says: "In Australia we have a place to stay. In Timor everything is gone. There is nothing to go back to."

Carla, 25, who arrived with Anna in December, 1994, works part time and is studying public health at La Trobe University. She says she no longer belongs in East Timor. "We have come over here, finished school, moved into the community. If I go back there I will not fit in.

"If it's safe to go back there, why do we still have peacekeeping forces at the border 24 hours, seven days a week?"

Her sister, Leonarda, who arrived after them, says the future is too uncertain to return. "There's a lot of things people say. We don't know what's right. We are scared to go back. I am thinking of going back, maybe in 20 years, but not now. I am just too scared. Maybe Indonesia could come back any time."

The uncertainty of life in East Timor, of random violence and friends killed or disappeared, and the pressure not to speak of things you have witnessed, of being caught between the military and the guerrilla forces, has been replaced by the fear of what might be decided by Australia's immigration authorities.

The waiting has been too long, but now that the government has said it will move on applications for protection visas from the 1700 East Timorese who have sought sanctuary here, there is a new nervousness. Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock said in March that they would have to demonstrate a well-founded fear of persecution to be granted a visa. It is seen as a coded message that, now East Timor's political situation has stabilised, the asylum seekers will be returned.

All the remade lives of these asylum seekers may yet have to be remade once more.

"The Timor community feel it is unfair to be living in limbo for years in Australia with no answers and now for the government to say we will send you back. Some kids are born in Australia, they think they're Aussies but, in reality, in legality, they're not. That's a very harsh thing for them to know that," Carla Chung said.

"In the past there was a full denial of the Indonesian invasion and the human rights abuses from the Australian Government. I believe the government should be thinking of viewing it from the perspective of human rights. Seven years for me is a long time, but for some it is more than 10 years."

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