Simon Roughneen, Rangoon – Confusion remains over the recent refusal by the East Timor government to allow a group of 95 refugees, many of whom are Burmese Rohingya, to stay in the country.
The group, 99 in total including four crew members, landed in East Timor, also known as Timor-Leste, on June 30, before being escorted several days later to a nearby Indonesian island by Timorese officials. The refugees are now being held at the Makassar Immigration Detention Center on Indonesia's Sulawesi island.
Vivian Tan, regional spokeswoman for the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), said the East Timor government has not yet replied to its enquiries about the case, but clarified that not all of the 95 are Rohingya or Burmese. "The group seems to be a mix of people from Myanmar, Bangladesh and Indonesia," Tan told The Irrawaddy.
"We are 73 Rohingya refugees, 47 men, 10 women and 16 children. Most of us fled directly from Burma and some from Malaysia," said Rafi Zaw Win, in an e-mail to an NGO working on Rohingya issues that was seen by The Irrawaddy. The man is part of the group currently being held in Makassar, some of whom appear to have Internet access and cellphone connections.
An Australian international NGO worker who has visited the group at the Makassar IDC, but asked not to be named, told The Irrawaddy that "the conditions of the center are very difficult and it is overcrowded. I did not go inside, but was able to talk to women, children and men through the wired gates outside. The people that I spoke to were scared, confused and didn't understand their situation."
Also raising concerns about the Dili government's handling of the case are Timorese NGOs, a group of which signed off on a July 26 letter to Timorese lawmakers – including Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao, a former political prisoner in Indonesia.
The NGOs say they have not received a reply from the Timorese government and, to highlight the case, subsequently published an English translation of the original letter, which was written in Tetum, the main language in East Timor.
Questions sent by The Irrawaddy to the prime minister's spokesman had not been replied to at time of writing.
In the letter, the NGOs accuse the government – a signatory to the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees – of reneging on its obligations to the boat people. "Upon achieving independence for ourselves, we also acquired an obligation to provide solidarity to the people of other lands, who need our help as human beings," reads the letter to the government, which includes ministers who in the past were themselves refugees.
The letter reminds the government of the terms of the country's constitution, referring to a section that reads: "The Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste shall grant political asylum, in accordance with the law, to foreigners persecuted as a result of their struggle for national and social liberation, defense of human rights, democracy and peace."
The pushback has caught the attention of civil society groups outside of East Timor. "Please note that Timor-Leste is a party to the Refugee Convention and, despite this, they expelled asylum seekers," Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, told The Irrawaddy
The HAK Association, a Timorese human rights organization and one of the NGO signatories, said it tried to speak to the group while they were in East Timor, but were prevented from doing so by Timorese police. "Members of PNTL [Timorese police] informed the team that they had received orders from the Prime Minister, which prohibited all people from carrying out interviews or taking photos," the letter to the government read.
Celestino Gusmao, researcher at La'o Hamutuk, a Dili-based development and economics research organization and one of the letter's signatories, told The Irrawaddy that the NGOs believe part of the reason for the government's actions was a lack of understanding of relevant laws and ensuing obligations. "We are using private channels to encourage the government to address this situation so that in the future such violations are not repeated," he said.
And while the Timorese government has not replied to the UNHCR or to local civil society groups, Timorese Foreign Minister Jose Luis Guterres said the refugees did not apply for asylum in East Timor, according to Timorese newspaper reports.
"On humanitarian grounds, we helped in the repair of the boat but none of them requested asylum to Timor-Leste. Then we escorted them to international waters and requested them to return to the place where they came from," said Guterres, who added that "if they had requested so, the governor would have done all the necessary action according to international conventions that we've ratified. The government and the people of East Timor have solidarity with those who are persecuted for political or religious reasons."
But according to Rafi Zaw Win, the group requested asylum on July 1 after landing on Timorese shores, after an attempt to reach Darwin in Australia, 400 kilometers south of East Timor, was scuppered due to engine trouble.
"On July 1, 2013, our boat came ashore in Island Bata village of East Timor and the villagers rescued and helped us and took us to their village's hall where we met Timorese police and I requested asylum to the police officers on behalf of 73 Burmese Rohingya refugees, but they told me that they could not consider our request for asylum in East Timor," he said.
The Rohingya are a Muslim people living mostly in western Burma's Arakan State. They are widely described by human rights groups as one of the world's most persecuted minorities. Two bouts of sectarian violence in Arakan State between Muslims, including Rohingya, and Buddhist Arakanese in 2012 has left about 100,000 Rohingya in squalid temporary camps, with thousands more seeking to flee the region to Thailand, Malaysia and beyond. "We do believe that the government of Timor-Leste violated the rights of those Rohingya who came here, we didn't treat them as people, and sent them into international waters," Manuel Monteiro Fernandes, acting director at the HAK Association, told The Irrawaddy.