Rohingya asylum seekers get brush off from East Timor | Connect Asia

Rohingya asylum seekers get brush off from East Timor

Rohingya asylum seekers get brush off from East Timor

Updated 18 July 2013, 16:52 AEST

A group of around 100 Rohingya asylum seekers, including women and children, has been turned away by East Timor.

The asylum seekers arrived in the country after their boat got into difficulties.

Ian Rintoul from the Refugee Action Coalition in Australia says authorities have provided no assistance, even though East Timor is a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention.

He says the asylum seekers are now on a remote Indonesian island, and determined to resume their attempt to make it to Australia.

Presenter: Richard Ewart

Speaker: Ian Rintoul, from the Refugee Action Coalition in Australia

RINTOUL: Well I only really heard about them last Friday when they were in East Timor, as you said they were attempting to come to Australia but the boat had got into trouble, exactly what kind of trouble I'm not sure. But certainly they got no welcome in East Timor, and eventually later on that Friday they did set sail from the island to try to get to Australia. They got into trouble again and we got a couple of calls saying that the boat was taking water and needed to get somewhere safely.
EWART: So do we know where they are now? 
RINTOUL: Yes now they're at Wetar Island, it's about 40 kilometres from the island in East Timor territory that they first landed on. So they haven't got very far which does indicate they're still got problems with the boat. They haven't got particular problems with Indonesian authorities at the moment so they're still hoping that they may be able to get things underway. But they're not very sure about that.
EWART: So when you say they don't have problems with the Indonesian authorities at the moment, does that mean that they're turning a blind eye to what is going on?
RINTOUL: Well I'm not even sure how, well they will now obviously know where they are, but they certainly hadn't been attempted to take into detention or anything like that, which is often the case. The island is pretty remote so perhaps they're not quite sure what to do with them anyway at the moment. The boat's not going anywhere but they would like to get underway to continue their journey to Australia.
EWART: Now quite a lot of debate of course in Australia at the moment about the UN Refugee Convention, but as it stands East Timor is another signatory to that convention, so what should have happened to this group of asylum seekers once they landed on Timor soil as it were?
RINTOUL: Well they should have been assisted in East Timor but this is not the first time that there's been a problem with asylum seekers under the East Timorese government, maybe in particular Rohingyas. But there was another group of Rohingya about a year ago which the East Timor government did everything it possibly could to try and push them across the border into Indonesian territory. And it was only because of some advice from Australia and the intervention of some other human rights people in East Timor itself, they ended up squatting in East Timor and demanding processing by the UNHCR. But neither the UNHCR nor the East Timorese government seems particularly friendly to asylum seeker arrivals. It really is a disgrace that the East Timorese responded the way they did. The maritime police were involved and effectively tried to push them off the island, making it very clear that they weren't going to be welcome in East Timor territory, and were not going to be assisted. So it's not really what you expect from a convention signatory.
EWART: Of course there was talk some months ago about a Timor solution as far as Australia's issues with asylum seekers was concerned. I mean do you think there is concern still in Dili that there could be an overspill here and Australia's problem could become theirs?
RINTOUL: They certainly do not want that but I think the stance, while they obviously have a particular stance on asylum seeker arrivals, at the moment as you see with the arrival of the Rohingyas, they don't want to be a transit country on the way to Australia for all the problems that they expect that that would bring, not the least of which would be the relations with Australia. But I think their attitude to actually the detention centre is quite different. I think they did see the detention centre and the East Timor solution being an attempt by Australia to impose the detention centre on them, which they saw completely contrary to the kind of values that the East Timorese uphold. And certainly there was a lot of community concern about East Timor accepting a detention centre funded and pushed on them by Australia in the circumstances. Unfortunately that attitude I don't think has extended, and very often because it's they don't know. The human rights community still responds quite well to asylum seeker arrivals, but the government has a different kind of view.
EWART: And as far as this group of Rohingya is concerned from what you've said it would seem inevitable that they will take to sea again at some point and try and make it to Australia. But in light of what has happened thus far, that journey would seem to be even more dangerous that normal?
RINTOUL: It'd be particularly risky at the moment, as I say I don't know the problems the boat had. It was taking water when they contacted Australia on Friday evening. So I think they'd want to have some very good repairs. But as we well know when it's faced with the prospects of taking some risks at sea compared to indefinite detention in Indonesia or worse, then often they feel there's no alternative but to take that risk. So we only hope that if they do take that risk, that Australia's going to be in a position to respond appropriately if they do get into trouble.
EWART: And can you confirm how many people are involved here and whether there are women and children on the boat?
RINTOUL: Look I understand there are women and children on the boat, I don't know the exact numbers. I understood it was over 100, but I haven't been able to confirm that.
EWART: And while we've got you on can I just get your take on this debate that seems to have started about the UN Refugee Convention, with Kevin Rudd suggesting it needs to be revisited. Does that concern you?
RINTOUL: Yes of course it's a serious concern Richard, Kevin Rudd's moving closer and closer to sort of the Liberals in terms of the politicking about the election in any case. And that's what I think most of the rhetoric we're getting from the Labor government at the moment is about politicking for the election. A move to actually change the convention I don't think would be very welcome as far as the international community was concerned. Most people look with disdain honestly about Australia's attitude to asylum seekers. European countries take far larger numbers than Australia does without the kind of furore and political debate which we're condemned to in Australia. And when you look at even the non-convention countries, like Jordan and Turkey and so on.  Turkey's taking more than 40-thousand a day from Syria at times, more in a day than we get in a year. So I think they would regard these moves as really self-serving moves away from the human rights which the international community likes to uphold anyway, likes to be seen to uphold.

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