Subject: Age: Bend the rules for a good cause (editorial)

The Age February 18 2003


Bend the rules for a good cause

East Timorese asylum seekers have a special case to be allowed to stay in Australia.

Last month more than 1000 East Timorese asylum seekers, some of whom have been in Australia for more than a decade, received notice from the Federal Government that they had 28 days to leave the country or be deported. Their applications for permanent residency had been rejected and the Government says they will only able to continue to stay in this country until they have exhausted the appeals process.

In the meantime, the mayors of Yarra, Moonee Valley, Brimbank, Maribyrnong and Dandenong have taken up the cause of the East Timorese who, they say, have become valued members of their local communities. The Government has sought to justify its action on the grounds that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees no longer considers the East Timorese to be refugees. But to focus on the technical status of these people is to miss the broader picture. Some of the affected East Timorese are children who were either born in this country or who have spent most of their lives here. The adults, who fled to Australia to escape the brutal conditions at home, have had to overcome trauma and adjust to a new language and society while all the time living with prolonged uncertainty about their citizenship status. The prospect of deportation now adds to their suffering. Many of the East Timorese say they have little or nothing to return to. Once more they must set aside their immediate past and start afresh. After spending years away from East Timor, the question of where home is for these people becomes a legitimate question.

Lawyers for the East Timorese say many members of the community would have qualified as refugees if their applications had been processed more efficiently. The Federal Government in turn has sought to blame the Timorese themselves for their drawn-out quest for permanent residency. It has argued that the East Timorese had automatic rights to Portuguese residency during the Indonesian occupation of East Timor; but the Federal Court found against this claim in three cases in 1997, 1998 and 2000. On the weekend, former Liberal minister Marie Tehan criticised the Government's handling of asylum seekers generally. She argued, rightly, that those detainees who passed the initial assessment procedures should be given a permanent protection visa, not a temporary visa set to expire in three years.

The East Timorese facing deportation provide a sorry example of what can happen when claims are not dealt with expeditiously. Australia's pride in helping East Timor achieve independence must now be tempered by our unwillingness to let these people stay. Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock may believe that, in the interests of consistency, exceptions should not be made for the East Timorese. But there are strong arguments - historical, political and cultural - that this community constitutes a special case. It is time to bend the rules.

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