Australia, Timor, and the cycle of fear.

Timor-Leste became a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention in December 2002, just seven months after its independence was restored. Despite being a party to the Convention, the process of seeking asylum in Timor is problematic at best, with no system set up for adjudicating asylum claims.

Unlike Australia, Timor-Leste is one of the poorest countries in Asia-Pacific region. Poverty rates are high and even the most basic infrastructure can be lacking in some areas. There are almost no mechanisms in place to support asylum seekers, whether it is via legal assistance or the provision of basic necessities such as food, or shelter. Timor’s small asylum seeker population often struggles to survive on a day-to-day basis.

Earlier this year a group of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar landed in Timor when their boat ran into difficulties. Timorese authorities, it was claimed, turned the group away.  

In response to the incident, former Timorese President and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, José Ramos-Horta said: “If they have nowhere else to go, if they are unwanted in rich Australia, we share with them our homes, for they are people like us, poor, homeless, persecuted. Timor-Leste must never turn its back on people fleeing hunger and wars. We too were refugees once, we fled our country, we fled poverty and persecution and we were sheltered by kind, caring people, who taught us about solidarity, about humanity”.

The Australian government, both present and past, could learn a thing from Mr. Ramos-Horta.

The creation of fear and anxiety in relation to asylum seekers, particularly those who arrive by boat is something that successive Australian governments have excelled at.

We have become a nation that has allowed our government to create fear among us.

We’ve all heard the slogans, slurs and catchphrases from the media, politicians and people on social media. Things like “stop the boats” or “queue jumpers” or “illegal immigrants”. We’ve been told that we’re being flooded by people from faraway lands who are coming here to change our “culture”, steal our jobs, and essentially destroy our country. Our very own Immigration Minister, Scott Morrison, instructed departmental staff and staff at detention centres to publicly refer to asylum seekers as “illegal”, despite the fact that under the UN Refugee Convention, to which Australia is a signatory, everyone has the right to seek asylum from persecution – regardless of their method of arrival.

Regardless of the way in which they travel, those who are seeking asylum have not done anything illegal, yet Scott Morrison’s new mandate will encourage the perpetuation of outright lies. It will aid the continuing cycle of fear.

I need to believe that a part of our nation has been brainwashed, that we’ve allowed ourselves to become part of a horrendous game of political misinformation designed purely for vote-grabbing. I can’t believe that the wider Australian society would accept our current mistreatment of asylum seekers unless they had been conditioned, by both politicians and media, to do so.

Much like asylum seekers in Australia, it would seem that the best hope those in Timor have is to rely on the compassion and sense of political figureheads, like Mr. Ramos-Horta for long-term solutions. To survive on a daily basis, many of them must rely on the kindness of strangers – strangers who often don’t have much themselves. The challenges for asylum seekers in a poverty-stricken country like Timor are huge – lack of employment or social services to assist them is just the start.

Arun, who is seven years old, and his family are among those facing such challenges. They have been stuck in Dili for two years now, unable to seek asylum and in those two years, Arun has not been able to attend school.

A wonderful friend of mine has been working on ways to help Arun and his family. They would like to send him to an English-speaking school in Dili where he can receive an education and have time to just be an ordinary school kid. He will have the chance to learn, to make friends, and to create dreams. The school term commences in December 2013, however to make this dream a reality, they have to raise funds. The fees (which include two months of summer school) are $3,300. There is a school admin fee of $300, textbooks to purchase at a cost of $175, a graduation fee of $100 and a parents and teachers fee of $10. A total of just $3,885 could change Arun’s life.

If you would like to help Arun go to school, you can make a donation to the following account:

Bank: Commonwealth Bank

Account Name: Sara M Webster

BSB: 063 533       Account Number: 1015 2396

My amazing friend, Sara, has requested that donations are made in this way (with your name and ‘Arun’ as the reference number) as it is difficult to cost-effectively transfer money to Timor-Leste. I can personally vouch for Sara, and promise that all funds will be used to help Arun go to school. Sara has also promised to personally respond to each donor with a confirmation that funds have been received.

Maybe I can’t do anything to change the rhetoric in Australia. Maybe I can’t stop the hatred, the misinformation, or the indoctrination. But knowing that there are people like José Ramos-Horta and Sara in the world gives me hope. Hope that all is not lost, hope that some of the propaganda that is so often spouted about asylum seekers is falling on deaf ears, hope that eventually Australia, Timor-Leste and the world will regain some of the humanity that it has lost.

 

 

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