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Monday, 9 December 2002
Page: 7450

Senator CROSSIN (3:55 PM) —I move:

That the Senate take note of the document.

I would like the Senate to take note of and accept the resolution that was agreed to by the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly. This motion relates to the current plight of the East Timorese asylum seekers based in Darwin in the Northern Territory who are seeking to stay in Australia. I want to reiterate some of the comments that were made during this debate in the Northern Territory when this motion was endorsed. As the Chief Minister said at the time, the Territory leads Australia in many respects. Of course, the most important among those is the cultural diversity of our society in the Top End—that is, the way in which people from many parts of the world and from many parts of Australia live together in peace and harmony with a sense of complete cooperation in Darwin.

We often hear people pay lip service to multiculturalism in other parts of our country but in the Territory it actually does work. It is readily seen in the schools, on the sporting fields and in our workplaces. We are a small community and a very tight-knit one, so we rely on this peace and harmony and the integration of our multicultural groups to a very large extent. What happens to one family affects all of us in the Top End. That is why the plight of the 80 or more East Timorese who have made the Northern Territory their home and are now probably facing, at the end of the day, deportation back to East Timor has raised many concerns within our community. That is why there are so many people working to ensure that this is not the case.

Many of these people are known to us. Some have spent up to 10 years or more living in the Top End and many have had children there. They have opened businesses. Many are studying or working. They are good neighbours, good friends and, in fact, they have been good immigrants. They are part of the Territory. As the Leader of the Opposition, Denis Burke, said in his contribution to this motion last week, everyone refers to them as Territorians. We feel they are a part of our community and they are Territorians.

These are people who once faced very grave fears for their safety in East Timor, some fleeing for their lives and losing family and friends in the outbreaks of violence leading up to and following the independence vote. They have found peace in Australia. They have found a home in Darwin and a haven in which they can bring up their children. That is why I think—and I agree with the Chief Minister—that it is devastating to hear that the federal government has given them a short deadline before planning to send them back to East Timor forcibly. Many of these people will lose everything if they leave now, and they will return to nothing. They face a very difficult time of dislocation, language problems for their children and unemployment. The small Territory population needs building up through good immigrants like the East Timorese, not the loss of families such as these.

We note that the federal government does not consider these people to be refugees following Australia's involvement in restoring peace in East Timor, but, of course, those of us who are fighting to ensure that these people stay in this country do not accept the federal government's ruling. There was a belief in, and a commitment to, ensuring that they would be considered a special case because of their great contribution to the Darwin community and the widespread support and respect they have won. Unfortunately, our attempts to date to get the federal government to agree to a special purpose category visa have failed.

I believe it would be so easy for Minister Ruddock to decide to grant resident status to the 1,700 or so East Timorese refugees who came to this country having fled East Timor many years ago prior to the start of that country's campaign and crusade to become an independent nation. It is unfortunate that this government has seemed to actually put a fence around these people and designate them as having a special case for refugee status as was the case in the 1980s when the Labor government recognised that needed to occur for people from China who were here during the Tiananmen Square massacre. Seventeen hundred people is not a lot of people for this country to welcome with open arms and to have as residents of this country forever without having to put them again through the trauma and dislocation that they will experience if they are sent back home.

We have 80 or more East Timorese people in the Northern Territory. Many of them, of course, have relatives amongst those 1,700 East Timorese who are in Melbourne. As I have said before in this chamber, they have played a significant role in contributing to our community. It is a role that should be acknowledged and these people should be accepted as part of our population in this country. It is within the minister's powers to do that. It is unfortunate, I must say, that Minister Ruddock was in the Northern Territory over the weekend. I came across him out at Jabiru on Saturday night. I realise that he had been in the Territory to take part in a land hand back at Kybrook Farm and he had flown on to Darwin on Sunday.

Senator Ferguson —It was not unfortunate.

Senator CROSSIN —It is unfortunate that he did not make himself available to meet these people or their representatives or to perhaps give them some acknowledgment that he knows there is a path that they are endeavouring to take. It is unfortunate that he did not make himself available to meet with representatives of this community while he was in the Northern Territory.

However, the community has been working long and hard on this. I noticed in the Sunday Territorian last Sunday week that some schoolchildren from Karama Primary School were raising funds to assist these people to gather together the $1,000 that they will need to appeal the initial decision. Last night at the Italian Club in Darwin there was a fundraising concert, again to gather together the funds that these people are going to need to appeal the decision to send them back to East Timor. That is exactly the nature of multiculturalism in Darwin when you have the Italian community offering their venue and their services to assist the plight of the East Timorese families. The work of St Vincent de Paul has been significant in that, and Mick Fox has been crucial in coordinating this campaign.

The Northern Territory government has pledged assistance through the Office of Ethnic Affairs, which will be supporting the Northern Territory Legal Aid Commission to provide assistance to these people so that they get the best sound advice and strong legal representation to be able to mount a case to stay. I understand that the Chief Minister had a conversation with Minister Ruddock in which he gave an undertaking that each case will be looked at individually under section 417 of the act, which is where the minister has the discretion. I hope that the minister would find that he has the discretion, at the end of the day, to grant these people residency in Australia based on humanitarian reasons. I hope that is the path these people go down and that they are entitled to stay, and are welcome to stay, in this country.

This motion passed by the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly is an important one. It continues the campaign to ensure that the East Timorese people are recognised as being strong contributors to the community, to support those who are living in Darwin and to support the affected families. Of course, it also recognises the many contributions of individuals, businesses and community organisations that are supporting the East Timorese people. One of those would be the Hakka Association. In the speeches that have been tabled that accompany this resolution there is recognition of the role that the Chinese Timorese association has played and the role that significant Chinese Timorese leaders in Darwin are playing in an effort to try to ensure that this federal government recognises that they can be in a win-win situation here. The win-win situation is that they could grant people a visa under particular humanitarian reasons or for whatever reason the minister chooses. This would acknowledge the substantial contribution of these members to our community and ensure that they can stay forever in Darwin, and in Australia—a place they have made their home and want to continue to make their home for themselves and for their children.