Burmese Asylum Seekers In Timor Limbo


A growing number of asylum seekers are arriving in East Timor by boat on their way to Australia, but many are left in limbo.

Last month 26 Burmese asylum seekers landed on the South coast of East Timor in a boat that ran out of fuel on the way from Indonesia to Australia.

The men were issued an order to leave the country within 10 days, or face the "immediate opening of a deportation process, detention and other coercive measures".

Only one of them men was able to comply, leaving for Indonesia.

The others don’t have travel documents or the money to leave, after giving $3500 to an Indonesian people smuggling agency to get to Australia.

The group, from the Rohingya ethnic minority, are now sleeping on the floor of the Directorate of Civil Security in Dili living off $5 a day provided by the International Organization for Migration.

Noor Muhammad, one of the Burmese men seeking asylum, says the group cannot go back to Burma.

"For a long time we left our country because we cannot go anywhere, to any village, and we cannot become citizens of Burma," he said.

Muhammad sought asylum in Malaysia, where he lived for 17 years, but says he was unable to work there. Now, he’s afraid he might have to go to jail in East Timor.

"They give us 10 days to go or say we might get two years jail in Timor-Leste, but we cannot go anywhere as we don’t have documents."

The issue of asylum seekers is a relatively new one for East Timor, which is the newest, and one of the poorest, countries in Asia.

The small nation had two asylum seekers from Sri Lanka and Papua last year, 16 from Sri Lanka in 2008 and six from India and Bangladesh in 2007, all on their way to Australia.

While East Timor is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on Refugees, none of those who have arrived have applied for asylum.

East Timor’s Immigration Chief Investigator Alfredo Abel says that if more boats come on their way to Australia, it could be a "big problem" in the future for East Timor.

For the group of asylum seekers who arrived last month, Abel said the government was "waiting for another solution".

"Two solutions are maybe they move to their original country or go back to Malaysia, but they ask to go to Australia and have no visa, no ticket, no passport."

But UNHCR spokeswoman Kitty McKinsey said under international law people seek asylum in the first country they get to, so you can’t "shop around" for a country to seek asylum.

"These people have not expressed interest in applying for asylum in Timor-Leste so our options are rather limited," she said.

An Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship spokesman said the department understood the group had been provided humanitarian visa application forms.

"Australia’s humanitarian program allows anyone to apply for a humanitarian visa offshore at any time."

In the meantime, Muhammad is adamant the only option is to seek asylum in Australia.

"If we can get asylum in Australia, it will save our lives."

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