Asylum seekers: fear and uncertainty in Timor-Leste

By Sharna Jade Bremner

By Sharna Jade Bremner

On 30 August 1999 an overwhelming majority of East Timorese voters rejected a continuation of Indonesian rule, with nearly 80 per cent choosing independence. The systematic violence that took place in the lead up to the vote, and exploded following the announcement of the results, saw over 250,000 East Timorese refugees flee across the border into West Timor, while countless more were internally displaced.

Those who fled voluntarily were escaping vicious beatings, shootings, machete attacks, decapitations, torture, sexual violence and mass killings, at the hands of pro-integration militias and Indonesian military and security forces. Others were forcibly deported by Indonesian military personnel and militias, threatened with violence and death, herded onto trucks and boats bound for West Timor in Indonesia.

Timor is no stranger to the so-called “push factors” affecting asylum seekers and refugees.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) opened its operations in East Timor in May of 1999, just prior to the so-called “popular consultation” for independence. It closed its doors in January 2012, some ten years after the world’s newest nation – and 191st member of the United Nations – Timor-Leste, was born, having overseen the return of over 220,000 refugees and the provision of aid to hundreds of thousands who were internally displaced.

Today, Timor-Leste has an asylum seeker problem of a different kind.

Less than a year after the declaration of independence on 20 May 2002, the government of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste signed and ratified both the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. In doing so, the government gave its promise to provide assistance to, and hear the claims of, those who arrive on its shores seeking asylum.

For the fifteen or so asylum seekers languishing in Timor’s capital, Dili, the government’s signature on the Convention and Protocol is meaningless. It has afforded them no protections, no assistance, and worst of all, no status.

Asylum seekers have been arriving in Timor since the early 2000s, however the exact number that are still in the tiny half-island nation remains unclear. Fear and anxiety are rife in the asylum seeker community, and many people are reluctant to identify themselves in a way that may see them targeted by authorities.

I first met Thomas*, an asylum seeker, in Dili in 2013. Quietly spoken, yet clearly passionate and intelligent, he explained the situation that he and others have found themselves in. Asylum seekers in Timor-Leste, he told me, live in a state of constant fear and uncertainty. The Timorese government have signified that they are not ready, or are perhaps unwilling, to receive or support any asylum seekers, according to those who have made attempts to claim asylum. Instead, they have been told to leave, or advised to head to Australia – a dangerous suggestion, and a direct contravention to Timor’s obligations under the Convention.

Article 92 of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste’s Immigration and Asylum Act (2003) stipulates that those who enter the country seeking asylum must submit their request within 72 hours of their arrival. This requirement that has been criticised by many civil society organisations and refugee advocates including Timor’s prominent development monitoring organisation La’o Hamutuk, who notes that the timeframe is unreasonable, given Timor’s infrastructure and communication difficulties. For those seeking asylum, Thomas tells me, there is little to no on-the-ground support for those who are newly arrived.

For Thomas and other asylum seekers in Timor-Leste, who have arrived from other countries in Asia, South America and Africa, the issue of personal safety is a key concern. There are few support mechanisms in place, and incidents of mistreatment are not uncommon. Asylum seekers are regularly intimidated by local authorities, and Thomas mentions an incident that took place in September 2013 as a notable example. A group of asylum seekers were set upon and beaten by members of the Batalhão de Ordem Pública (Public Order Battalion) or BOP, leaving one with a severely injured ankle and long-term bruising.

The fear and intimidation faced by asylum seekers in Timor-Leste is further compounded by a lack of financial security. Without the proper visa, foreigners in Timor are unable to undertake paid employment, and the title of “foreigner” extends to those seeking asylum – regardless of the status of their claim. Asylum seekers receive a small allowance (around US$5 per day), provided by the UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM), however this is far from adequate to survive in Timor’s dual economy. The legacy of highly-paid United Nations staff and foreign consultants has resulted in inflated food and accommodation prices, meaning that asylum seekers have been forced to sleep on Dili’s beaches, according to Thomas. He tells me that medical assistance is out of the financial reach of most asylum seekers, many of whom are believed to be suffering from malnutrition as they are often unable to afford food.

The nature of the asylum seeker process in Timor-Leste has caused a great deal of psychological problems among the small group who are attempting to make claims, Thomas tells me. Some report of not being informed of the outcome of their claim for a significant amount of time following the decision, while others report having being denied any assistance or legal support at all. Most, Thomas says, would simply like to know if their claims for asylum are being, or able to be, processed at all. He fears for the mental wellbeing of those who are seemingly trapped in a constant state of uncertainty.

Public allegations of the Timorese government’s abandonment of its obligations under the UNHCR Convention were again brought to light in July 2013, following the arrival of a boat carrying 95 asylum seekers and four crew arrived of the coast of the south-east district of Viqueque. The asylum seekers, mostly Rohingyas from Myanmar, claimed to have sought asylum upon arrival, but were told that their request would not be considered – allegations that were dismissed by Timor’s Foreign Minister, José Luís Guterres. Aid groups in Timor-Leste, including the Red Cross, the IOM and a local human rights organisation, Asosiasaun HAK, confirmed that the group had been kept in isolation in Timor, but that aid organisations had been denied access.

Former President and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, José Ramos-Horta, has publicly criticised the treatment of asylum seekers by the current Timorese government, noting that Timorese people were once refugees themselves.

For Thomas and the other asylum seekers in Timor-Leste, Mr Ramos-Horta’s words carry little meaning. There is no motivation among those in power to assist the asylum seekers, Thomas suggests. He believes that Timor’s small asylum seeker population has been abandoned by the UNHCR, the IOM, and most importantly the government of Timor-Leste, who have intentionally disregarded their obligations under the 1951 Convention.

*Name changed to protect identity for security purposes. At the request of the asylum seeker community in Timor-Leste, all information relayed by Thomas was done so anonymously.

Sharna Jade Bremner is a PhD candidate in Anthropology and Development Studies at the University of Adelaide.