Let the East Timorese boat people stay!


By Lisa Macdonald

The arrival of 18 East Timorese boat people in Darwin on May 30 has created a major headache for the ALP federal government.

Several thousand East Timorese have fled to Australia by various means since the brutal invasion of their country by Indonesia in 1975. The latest arrivals are, however, the first to arrive illegally by boat.

According to sources in Dili, the refugees — 15 men and two women, accompanied by a six-month-old baby — have all suffered constant persecution, torture and imprisonment since the massacre of pro-independence protesters at the Santa Cruz cemetery in Dili in November 1991.

A statement issued by the National Council of Maubere Resistance (CNRM) on May 30 says that the group made the five-day trip by boat to "draw international attention to the intolerable human rights conditions in their homeland and to show their rejection of the oppressive illegal Indonesian occupation of their country."

The group also "wishes to express their protest at the slow pace of the so far fruitless UN-sponsored talks aimed at searching for a solution to the East Timor problem".

A vigil was begun on Darwin harbour by local East Timorese and solidarity activists the day the refugees arrived. The activists had hoped to prevent government authorities from sending the boat people to an immigration detention camp at the Curtin air base at Derby in north-west WA.

On May 30, a CNRM representative in Darwin, Jose Gusmao, wrote to the federal minister for immigration, Senator Nick Bolkus, conveying a commitment by the Darwin East Timorese community to provide accommodation and support for the refugees while their applications for refugee status were being processed. Gusmao argued that this course of action was both compassionate and would save the Australian government considerable expense.

On May 31, local lawyers Terry Senior and Colin McDonald lost their battle in the Darwin Federal Court for an injunction to prevent the relocation of the refugees to Derby. In his ruling, Judge O'Loughlin made it clear that his decision to relocate the refugees was based on advice he had received from Bolkus. Three hours later, the East Timorese were on a plane out of Darwin.

According to an account of events in Darwin by Australians for a Free East Timor member Hugh Ekeberg, O'Loughlin's ruling, while opposed by the East Timorese and their supporters, does set an important precedent by allowing McDonald and his legal assistant to accompany the refugees to Derby to "ensure that they are properly informed of their rights". It appears that the political sensitivity of the East Timor issue means that all proper procedures will be carefully adhered to in this particular case.

During the court proceedings the refugees were moved from a secret location, where they had been detained since their arrival, to the international airport, where supporters held a noisy demonstration against their removal from Darwin.

At the airport, and following a three-day battle with immigration authorities, Jose Gusmao and Terry Senior were allowed to meet with the refugees. Commenting on the unwillingness of the authorities to allow any contact with the refugees before then, Gusmao told Green Left Weekly, "I am not satisfied with the treatment of our people by the Immigration Department. If we had not taken this case to court, the boat people would not even have known their rights."

Emerging from his meeting with the refugees, Senior delivered a message from them to their supporters protesting outside. It said: "We appreciate all the support you have shown us. We no longer feel alone as we have felt for these three days. We do not yet feel free, but we hope to be completely free soon. We would like you to pray for us and all East Timorese. Viva Timor Leste!"

The relocation of the refugees to Derby is clearly an attempt to isolate them from the media and East Timor freedom campaigners in Australia, thereby reducing the possibility of further political embarrassment for the pro-Indonesia federal government. Considerable damage has, however, already been done. Commenting on the publicity already received, Gusmao said, "We have raised the question of the treatment of boat people, East Timorese and others, and made it a national and international issue".

The arrival of the boat people has caused particular embarrassment for the Australian and Indonesian governments by coinciding with a high profile visit to Australia by the Indonesian minister for science and technology, B.J. Habibie.

Habibie's statement at a press conference in Canberra on May 30 that human rights are "not an absolute thing, it's relative to your country" fuels growing criticism of the federal government's friendship with the Suharto dictatorship. Going on to dismiss the arrival of the boat people, and their claims of abuse by Indonesian authorities in East Timor, as a publicity "stunt", Habibie's public comments on East Timor have hardly been useful to the Keating government.

The arrival of the boat people creates some significant problems for the federal ALP. Whatever the decision on the boat people's application to stay in Australia, their arrival increases pressure on Bolkus to resolve the issue of whether East Timorese should be considered nationals of Indonesia or Portugal when refugee status is being considered in Australia.

Allowing the East Timorese to stay in Australia would undoubtedly provoke outrage in Jakarta. It would also contradict the harder line that the minister for immigration has taken in recent statements, which have questioned the validity of applications for political refugee status lodged by 700 East Timorese who arrived in Australia on tourist visas late last year.

However, if the boat people are forcibly returned to East Timor, the publicity that their case has already received will increase the growing condemnation of the federal government's support for the illegal occupation and brutalisation of East Timor.