Eve Webster – Thousands of East Timorese people who fled the country in the 1990s could lose their rights to work, rent a home or access the NHS in three days' time because of Brexit.
Campaigners say many of the estimated 15,000-strong population in the country do not understand that if they do not apply for settled status to the Home Office by Wednesday they will lose their rights.
Many of the East Timorese community travelled to the UK on Portuguese passports but have a strong East Timorese sense of identity and do not understand the ramifications of being, on paper, an EU citizen, activists have warned.
A Timorese interpreter and translator, Bocagio dos Santos, an activist in Oxford where the largest population of East Timorese is thought to live, said many have "only the slightest understanding of what Brexit is and what it means for their right to remain in the UK".
Local campaigners estimate about a third have not begun their application for post-Brexit status despite the 30 June deadline.
"There are Timorese people in the UK who are totally unaware that Brexit has happened. They could end up being in the country illegally next week and they won't even know why," Dos Santos said.
Oxford's East Timorese community chair, Rosalia Costa, said: "I'm expecting the worst. Language barriers are the biggest problem but there's not much effort to communicate with us in our own languages.
"There are about 4,000 Timorese people in Oxford alone so we should have a service in our language to help those who don't want to speak up."
East Timor was a Portuguese colony until 1975 and citizens born before 2002 are entitled to a Portuguese passport. Since the early 90s, thousands of Timorese have settled in the UK as EU citizens, many fleeing war and the Indonesian occupation. There is no exact figure on the number of East Timorese people living in the UK. Estimates range between 5,000 and 20,000, with Oxford home to the largest single community.
Fazil Kawani, a coordinator at the charity Asylum Welcome, said that although there had been some successes, the charity has found engaging the community challenging. "They have many of the same issues as the other communities we're helping but until now they had a different status in the country [as EU citizens] and that stops them from contacting us."
Rasina, 25, and Joel, 28, an Oxford-based Timorese couple, discovered that they would have to apply to remain in the UK through Facebook.
Former professional footballer Onorio, 28, who arrived in 2020, said: "I was totally shocked by it when I arrived in the UK. I had never heard of Brexit while I was in East Timor. It was only when I arrived that I found out that things had changed.
"I know so many Timorese people who are facing the same issues but they're afraid to speak out. They think keeping quiet is the best option.
"I'd be devastated to go back. There are no jobs and I won't be able to provide for my family back home. I'm the eldest, so I'm responsible for looking after them."
Oxford city council said it was working with Asylum Welcome to help EU citizens struggling with their applications with "specific communications in the main East Timorese language of Tetum to reach this community".
The Home Office said all EU citizens settled in the country before 11pm on 31 December 2020 should apply for settled status before 30 June even if they do not have all the documentation that may be required. As long as their application is in the system they will retain their rights to work, live and rent, even during the many months it may take to process.
"Anyone who has applied to the EU settlement scheme by the 30 June deadline, but has not had a decision by then, will have their rights protected until their application is decided. This is set out in law," the Home Office said.
"Dedicated civil servants are working extremely hard to help applicants secure their status, including supporting them to provide the evidence required."