|Subject: AGE: 10-year fight ends in joy for
10-year fight ends in joy for asylum seekers By Meaghan Shaw
Canberra June 4 2003
After a decade-long battle to stay in Australia, most of Melbourne's 1500-strong community of East Timorese asylum seekers are expected to be granted permanent residency by the Federal Government.
Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock yesterday said he would intervene now to grant 379 East Timorese permanent visas as long as they passed health and character checks.
A high proportion of the remaining asylum seekers were also likely to be accepted on the grounds of their persecution in East Timor and links with the Australian community, the Government indicated.
About 1500 of Australia's 1600 East Timorese asylum seekers are living in Victoria on bridging visas after fleeing strife-torn East Timor in the 1990s - many in response to the 1991 Santa Cruz cemetery massacre, in which Indonesian soldiers opened fire on mourners in a Dili funeral procession.
The latest indications from the Government were cautiously welcomed by East Timorese community members in Melbourne, but some said they would not celebrate until the process was completed.
Mr Ruddock is working through more than 500 requests to use his discretion to intervene on humanitarian grounds, and so far has rejected only two and asked for further questions on three cases. He is still considering about 200 requests.
His spokesman said a rough examination of another 1000 cases still before the Refugee Review Tribunal indicated a high proportion would meet the guidelines for intervention.
Their applications for refugee status were delayed for years by a legal dispute over whether they should instead be seeking the protection of Portugal, East Timor's former colonial ruler.
Once the Government resumed processing their applications last year, their claims for refugee status had collapsed because East Timor had gained independence from Indonesia in 1999 and it was considered they no longer faced persecution at home.
Mr Ruddock yesterday said it was inappropriate to create a special visa class for the East Timorese - as requested by refugee advocates and Opposition parties - because circumstances could vary from case to case. "The Government took the view that I should continue to process these matters individually and to take into account the circumstances that were raised," he said.
A spokesman said Mr Ruddock was generally intervening in cases where people had experienced discrimination or persecution, and had strong family links with Australia. Other asylum seekers could be accepted if they suffered poor health that would deteriorate if they returned home or if they ran a business.
Fivo Freitas, 27, a former East Timorese resistance fighter now living in Richmond, said last night he was feeling more optimistic about his prospects for staying.
But his case was still pending in the Refugee Review Tribunal and he would not celebrate until all 1600 asylum seekers were allowed to stay.
"We've been fighting this struggle and been in limbo for more than a decade," Mr Freitas said.
"I am praying and hoping that the Australian Government is wise like the Australian people and wants us to stay."
East Timorese-born community worker Etervina Groenen, who works at the North Richmond Community Health Centre, described the reactions of people who had received letters advising them they could stay. "They're overjoyed," she said.
"It is nice for me too . . . I've shared a lot of the frustration and pain of my own people and I know what they went through in East Timor."
Victorian Premier Steve Bracks welcomed the decision and called on the Federal Government to resolve quickly the outstanding cases.
- with Andra Jackson
This story was found at: http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2003/06/03/1054406189030.html
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