[A-List] Australia: Timor credibility gap
michael.keaney at mbs.fi
Tue Dec 3 03:20:18 MST 2002
Theatre of the absurd
The law that once protected refugees from East Timor is now being used to
expel them, writes David Fickling
Monday December 2, 2002
Absurdity is a concept particularly popular with politicians treading on
shaky moral ground. Invoke absurdity, and you immediately set yourself up on
the side of reason, while ushering all right-thinking people to stand
shoulder-to-shoulder with you. Those you criticise are self-evidently in the
wrong. They are just making themselves look foolish by disagreeing with you.
These days, the Australian government sees a great deal of absurdity in the
world. According to the prime minister, John Howard, Oxfam's criticism of
the Pacific solution - by which the government spent more than A$500m
(£140m) quartering a few hundred refugees on a couple of Pacific islands -
His immigration minister, Philip Ruddock, levelled the same criticism at
federal court justice Graham Hill, when the judge suggested that Australian
courts should be allowed to review the results of immigration decisions. A
few years back, opposition leader Kim Beazley apparently outed himself as
absurd too - he suggested that asylum seekers should be granted temporary
visas while their cases are sorted out.
For the past year such absurdities have been on the decline, as the flow of
boats transporting refugees from Indonesia's southern shores to Australia's
northern coasts has dried up. The government has basked in the success of
its fortress Australia policy, and devoted itself to tying up loose ends.
One of those loose ends is a 47-year-old man sitting in the front room of
his single-storey house, in the suburban sprawl of east Darwin. Domingos da
Silva was working in Dili's Hotel Turismo 27 years ago this Saturday, when
Indonesian troops parachuted into the East Timorese capital to take over the
In the massacres which followed, a quarter of East Timor's population was
killed, some 200,000 people. The beach opposite the hotel, he says, was
covered in the bodies of the dead, washed up from the sea and left behind by
the Indonesian army.
Like many East Timorese of his generation, he did not accept the occupation
with ease. For 19 years he worked as a coordinator between the civilian
independence movement and the Fretilin (the Revolutionary Front for an
Independent East Timor) guerrillas, arranging shipment of supplies and
meetings between the groups. It was not an easy or safe job. In 1989 several
of his close associates were arrested by Indonesian intelligence, and he
learned that someone had informed on him.
Three years later some of his Indonesian friends told him that they had seen
his name on an army blacklist of suspected insurgents. Those on blacklists
were routinely arrested, beaten, and, at times of unrest, killed.
Unsurprisingly, he decided it was time to leave, and after a month in Bali -
then, as now, one of Indonesia's prime gateways to Australia - he obtained
visas to come to Australia with his four children and pregnant wife.
Since 1994 he has lived and worked in Darwin, and despite the East Timorese
and Fretilin flags on top of his television and the distinctly south-east
Asian heat of his house in the build-up to Darwin's monsoon season, he and
his family are, to all intents and purposes, naturalised Australians.
Life here has not always been perfect. Last year, his father died back in
Dili, but his temporary protection visa meant that if he was to attend the
funeral, he would have to give up all hope of returning to Australia. But in
general the country had treated him well. Until last month.
In November, he received a letter from the immigration department explaining
that, with East Timor's independence officially recognised since May this
year, he was free to return to his home country. So free, in fact, that if
he did not manage to persuade the refugee review tribunal to let him stay,
he would be chucked out in 28 days.
The response of Darwin residents to the Da Silvas' plight has been
uncharacteristically warm, in a country not always famed for its hospitality
to refugees. The Northern Territory administration promised to support their
case, as did state representatives in Canberra. Locals show a degree of
support for the dozen East Timorese families in the city which is often
absent in other, supposedly more cosmopolitan areas of Australia.
The city has always had a strong kindred spirit with its neighbour across
the Arafura Sea. In the massacres which followed East Timor's independence
vote in 1999, Darwin hospitals treated many of the wounded. During the long
years of Indonesian subjection, East Timor and Darwin were closer to each
other than either was to their own capital cities, and visitors to the
Northern Territory will notice that a certain spirit of independence
flourishes here too.
But the government has so far turned a stony face to such appeals. No one
expects the refugee review tribunal to allow them to remain, and Mr Da Silva
says he is putting his hope in the compassion of the immigration minister,
The staunch defenders of rich-country immigration systems are quick to
defend this situation. They say that the violence and civil chaos he and his
family fled from have now vanished. They explain that laws must be applied
blindly, without recognition of individual circumstances.
The thing is, they are missing the point. Criticising the government's
adamantine attitude to these refugees is not about being merciful in the
application of a law. It is about questioning the justice of the law itself.
Laws should exist for a reason, not in a self-justifying vacuum. The
purported reason behind the existence of temporary protection visas is that
they allow a country to absorb otherwise unsustainable numbers of refugees
at times of crisis, before returning them when peace breaks out.
Less than 120 Timorese do not constitute an unsustainable refugee problem.
The proof of their sustainability is that they have been in Australia for
the best part of a decade, without anybody noticing.
So here is a family of seven naturalised Australians who are being told they
must uproot themselves to another country, which many of them do not
remember and in which only three of them speak the language. Their eldest
son, who is studying IT at Northern Territory university, is expected to
drop out of his course quarter of the way through and look for work in a
country where half the population is unemployed and 70 per cent of the
infrastructure was destroyed by west Timorese militias in 1999.
Their youngest daughter, who knows no other country besides Australia, is
expected to muddle by in a country with a rudimentary education system which
teaches in two languages, neither of which she understands.
The Da Silvas are not the vanguard of some fictitious wave of
asylum-seekers, trying to exploit the system. They are simply Australian
residents who do not see why, having been embraced by this country in their
time of need, they should suddenly watch it tear up the lives they have
Ultimately, if the Da Silvas do fail in their appeal and are sent back to
East Timor, it will not be because they tried to cheat any system, or
because they are a drain on Northern Territory budgets, or because they have
committed any crime in Australia. It will be because the Gradgrindian
application of Australia's immigration laws pays no heed or mercy to
individuals, or to families. Their lives must be toyed with, and their
opportunities circumscribed, to preserve an idea. That is the real
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