Karon Snowdon – East Timor's foreign minister says a boatload of asylum seekers en route to Australia was not forcibly pushed away from his country in early July.
The group of 95 mostly Rohingyas from Myanmar arrived on East Timor's south coast from Indonesia, having managed to get close to Darwin before their damaged boat drifted north.
They have claimed repeatedly to have sought asylum and assistance from East Timor, which was denied. It is a claim Foreign Minister Jose Luis Guterres told Radio Australia's Asia Pacific is not correct.
"I was in Australia when this incident happened and I was informed by the secretary of state for security that, in fact, the government of Timor-Leste helped them fix their boat and we haven't received any requests for asylum from nobody," he said.
"And once the engines were repaired, we all agreed with them to go back to place of their origin."
The country of origin is considered to be Indonesia, and they were sent to nearby Wetar Island on July 11 and to even smaller Liran on July 14. It is now believed they have been returned to Sulawesi in Indonesia.
In an interview on Radio Australia on the July 22, and via a written statement, the group's spokesman Zaw Win claims to have asked for asylum for the Rohingyas on three occasions and was, at times, threatened by police.
"We have sympathy, we have solidarity for all those that have been persecuted in their countries because of religion or because of political options," Mr Guterres said. "But I have to say to you that no one has requested political asylum in Timor-Leste."
Foreign Minister Guterres says East Timor honours its commitments under international law.
"We have to proceed according to the laws and the convention on refugees," he said. "Our own constitution guarantees and recognises that for people that are persecuted, the state can give them political asylum." Aid groups claim access denied
Calls to the Red Cross and the UN's International Organisation for Migration in Dili 10 days ago confirmed reports that the group was kept in isolation in East Timor and aid organisations were denied access.
When the group moved to Indonesia, the IOM and the UNHCR in Jakarta did not return calls. Sisto de Santos from the East Timor NGO Human Rights Law and Justice, or HAK, confirms he was unable to access the refugees.
"The local police in East Timor refused us to meet directly with the people and be confident they didn't violate these conventions," he said.
Foreign Minister Guterres acknowledges East Timor is obliged under the refugee convention to assist asylum seekers, and says the group was never detained. "So I don't know why they complain about being granted access, because these people have been free all the time," he said.
Former president Jose Ramos Horta felt strongly enough about the issue to write an article in which he said he was very saddened by the incident. Mr Ramos Horta raised the issue with the foreign minister on a recent trip to Africa.
"Yes, the former president asked me if it's true that we refused asylum to them and I said 'no, no-one requested asylum from us and we did according to our means'," Mr Guterres said.
"I do support the initiatives of Prime Minister Rudd and the president of Indonesia to convey international confidence in dealing with this issue.
"No-one wants to have children or women or men dying in the high seas just because they want to look for a better life, or they are persecuted, and they want to go to Australia."
The latest unconfirmed report is that the group was bound to arrive in Sulawesi late Monday night, possibly with the assistance of UN migration organisation, the IOM.