Subject: Timor demands Malaysia return its teens

The Age

Timor demands Malaysia return its teens


March 22, 2010

KIRSTY Sword-Gusmao, the wife of East Timor's Prime Minister, has demanded an Australian woman return to Dili 15 Timorese teenagers who have been under her care in Malaysia for several years.

Mrs Sword-Gusmao says the teenagers, who were taken to Malaysia ostensibly for medical treatment, should be brought back to East Timor where law and order have been restored and where they can be educated and cared for in their own country.

But Sydney woman Lala Noronha, 55, has told The Age the teenagers do not want to return to East Timor.

"It's not about me. It's actually up to the kids to say what they want to do," she said last night.

Ms Noronha said she has allowed the teenagers to stay in Malaysia because they told her they did not want to "go back and be like" other children from an orphanage she founded in Dili 10 years ago. She said she had received messages from Dili saying those children do not have enough to eat, are not attending school and that two teenage girls had become pregnant.

Mrs Sword-Gusmao, a campaigner for women's and children rights, told The Age she is concerned that while in Malaysia the teenagers have been encouraged to think badly about their country.

She said she has repeatedly asked the East Timor Government, through its embassy in Kuala Lumpur, to establish what Ms Noronha's intentions are for the teenagers, most of whom, she says, have at least one parent in East Timor. She said living in Malaysia would be "eroding the children's sense of belonging and sense of identity".

"There are ample opportunities for these kids in Timor," Mrs Sword-Gusmao said.

The children's fate has emerged as a controversial and emotional issue among East Timor's political elite. During Indonesia's 25-year rule of East Timor, hundreds ­ perhaps thousands ­ of Timorese children were separated from their parents and taken to Indonesia. Many of them have not returned.

The orphanage Ms Noronha helped to establish in 1999 has been closed and more than 15 children have either been returned to their relatives or put under the care of other families.

In November 2007, East Timorese authorities prevented 27 children from the orphanage from being taken to Malaysia where Ms Noronha planned to care for them.

Malaysian army and police peacekeepers had protected and befriended children at the orphanage in Dili when violence broke out in the city in 2006. The orphanage had been caring for 30 homeless children from the time that violent upheaval broke out in the country in 1999.

Mrs Sword-Gusmao was the orphanage's patron, which helped Ms Noronha attract donors. In late 2006, when violent gangs were rampaging through Dili, Malaysian peacekeepers flew one of the children to Malaysia for urgent medical treatment.

Over the next several years more of the children arrived in Malaysia, including 13-year-old Melina Jokita, who underwent heart surgery in a Kuala Lumpur.

Speaking in Sydney, Ms Noronha said that all she had done had been in the interests of the children. But she said their future now has to be "sorted out".

"If they (Timorese) want the kids back, they have to have a plan ­ what are they going to do with them?" she said.

Ms Noronha said the "kids are unsettled" following abusive telephone calls from East Timor.

She said all of them were unwell when they were taken to Malaysia and that the original plan was for all of them to return once they had been treated.

But Ms Noronha said two of the teenagers still require medical treatment. A Malaysian doctor last year gave the group a house in which to stay after they were forced to vacate a place at short notice.

A journalist who visited the children shortly before Christmas said the teenagers are happy to be in Malaysia but know they will one day go back to their country.

Carmen da Cruz, head of East Timor's child protection agency, backed Mrs Sword-Gusmao's call for the teenagers to be return to Dili.

"They need to have their situation normalised," she said.

Ms da Cruz said children from the orphanage who did not go to Malaysia had been integrated into families across East Timor.

The orphanage's assets have been spent to help the families, while its buildings have been leased to a school.

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