Michael Bachelard – Three weeks ago some of the world's unluckiest people were given one more reason to curse their fate.
Fleeing persecution in their home country, and after years of living in Malaysia as non-citizens, 26 Arakanese Muslims from Burma set out on a boat bound for Australia.
Instead, on March 27, they washed up in one of the poorest countries in Asia – East Timor. Their boat ran out of fuel off the country's southern coast and their captain swam to shore.
East Timor, once the target of Julia Gillard's ill-fated "Timor Solution" is not a favoured destination for refugees. The poverty-stricken nation has signed the UN convention on refugees, but only a handful have ever come here.
Three weeks later, all 26 men, ranging in age from 14 to 46, are sleeping on mats on the floor of a large conference room of the Directorate of Civil Security in Dili. They survive on $5 a day from the International Organisation for Migration.
In East Timor, the authorities are stumped. Noor Muhammad, 36, speaking for the group when The Age visited them this week, said the police had charged them with illegal entry and handed them letters telling them to leave within 10 days or they would be deported, detained, or face "other coercive measures".
If they failed to comply, they could be imprisoned for two years. The 10 days expired on Friday. East Timor's chief investigation officer for migration, Alfredo Abel, told The Age: "Now [we are] waiting for another solution".
With no money and no documents, it was clear the refugees could not leave the country voluntarily. If they were to be imprisoned, it would be "not tomorrow, not next week, a long time", Mr Abel said.
If they apply for asylum in East Timor, the country has a responsibility under the UN convention. But they do not want to apply. Another option, however, was for East Timor to fly them back to Malaysia, or even Burma, at its own expense, Mr Abel said.
Mr Muhammad said the 26 had spent their money – $US3500 ($A3370) each – paying Indonesian people smugglers to get to Australia, and that was still where they wanted to go.
With the help of refugee activist Mark Goudkamp, who was holidaying in Dili last week, they have the forms to apply for an Australian offshore humanitarian visa, but the 32-page form has so far proved too difficult for them to fill out.
The Australian embassy in Dili referred queries to the Australian Immigration Department, which said they were welcome to apply for humanitarian visas. The International Organisation for Migration could help them, a spokeswoman said.
Mr Muhammad said he had been in Malaysia since 1994. The UN recognised him as a refugee from the Burmese regime, which denies his people the basics of citizenship such as identification documents and free movement.
In Malaysia, he lived for 17 years as a non-citizen in the refugee "queue", applying repeatedly for asylum in Australia. Others in his group had been there even longer. Mr Muhammad said they wanted to come to a country where they would be welcomed, and be able to work, marry, travel, and enjoy full legal rights.