News reached me today that Rohingya fleeing persecution in Myanmar had reached the waters of my country, Timor-Leste (East Timor), and had been turned away.
As soon as I heard, I sought clarification from Timor-Leste's Foreign Affairs Minister, Jose Luis Guterres -- a good, caring human being. We spoke briefly this morning, in Maputo, Mozambique, where we were both attending a Ministerial Meeting of the Portuguese-Speaking Countries. I was attending as the UN Special Envoy for Guinea-Bissau to brief the ministers on developments in Guinea-Bissau.
According to Foreign Minister Guterres, the refugees had not wanted to stay in Timor. Their destination, he said, was Australia.
"Timor-Leste maritime police helped them fix their engine as per their request," he said. "And the refugees asked to be allowed to continue their journey to Australia. The maritime police escorted them to international waters and let them go."
Was this the correct approach? Is it politically and morally defensible? I do not comment.
In 2001 and 2002 when Foreign Minister of Timor-Leste, I was confronted with similar situations of boat people seeking shelter in our country. I argued strongly then and prevailed over some strong objections in letting asylum seekers disembarking in Timor-Leste. In the first instance, at the end of August 2001, hundreds of refugees on a boat who became known as the "Tampa boat people" were stranded in the Timor Sea attempting to travel to Australia. Australia refused to let them in. I advocated for them and consulted with my compatriots, Xanana Gusmao, Mari Alkatiri and Bishop Belo, and we unanimously agreed that Timor-Leste would welcome them as a temporary measure. However, as poor Timor-Leste showed greater compassion than rich Australia, there was such widespread outrage at Australia's attitude that Australia relented and let them into an Australian off-shore island. So the refugees never had to disembark in our poor country.
In 2002, newly independent Timor-Leste faced its first test in how to manage a humanitarian refugee crisis. A boat full of Sri Lankan refugees, all from the majority Singhalese ethnic group, had approached our shores seeking water and shelter as they wished to continue their journey to New Zealand, a very long and perilous journey. Key Ministers in the Government argued against allowing the refugees on shore. I forcefully argued for. In the end I prevailed; the Prime Minister sided with me in my altercation with the other Ministers involved in the decision making dispute.
As it turned out they were economic refugees, not political refugees. They were brought on shore, interviewed and told their story, how they were duped by unscrupulous smugglers whom they paid each $2,000 to sail them to New Zealand. The boat carried some 50 people when in fact it could fit a maximum of 20. It would have sunk in the perilous seas to the South. They stayed in Timor-Leste for a month, were well treated, fed, allowed to visit the city, while we negotiated with the Sri Lankan authorities for their voluntary return home. They all returned home.
A few years ago, while President of Timor-Leste and on a visit to our own Atauro Island, I addressed a small crowd and the island's tiny police force in the Island. I was asked a question by a local concerning many undocumented Indonesian citizens from isolated neighboring Indonesian islands seeking medical help in Atauro.
I responded that as Head of State, and particularly addressing the police present, that "Anyone reaching our shores seeking shelter, food, water, medical care, whoever they are, wherever they may come from, we welcome them, shelter them from persecution or fear, provide them water, food, medical care. Ask questions later, where they are coming from, where they might wish to go.
"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 turned 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."
In the case of the unwanted and persecuted Rohingya refugees, I would have acted differently. As poor as Timor-Leste may be, we are no longer as poor as in 2002. In the last five years or so we have been in the fortunate position ourselves of offering aid to people in other countries affected by natural disasters, well over US$10 million. Surely, we can share our bamboo roof, a loaf of bread, a plate of rice, cassava, some coconut water with our fellow brothers and sisters from Myanmar.
I am saddened. Were I in Timor-Leste I would have pleaded with the Government to let the refugees in under my personal responsibility. I would have invited them to camp in my small family compound. I would sign off terms of responsibility to care for them. In 2006 during our own political-security crisis, when our people were displaced and fled the city, I hosted hundreds of unknown people, children and adults, men and women, in my compound. They stayed in the relative safety of my home for weeks.
Today, far away from home, I plead with President Taur Matan Ruak and Prime Minister Xanana to let these unwanted, persecuted people stay in our country. And I am ready to welcome these unwanted children of God into my relatively comfortable home.