What about us, say asylum hosts

Children Timor

Children play on a makeshift football pitch in Dili as the Timorese debated the Gillard asylum-seeker proposal. Source: The Australian

PAULO Freitas spent 16 years in the armed struggle against Indonesia's occupation of East Timor.

He lost his parents and a sibling in the war, and these days scrapes by on the poverty line, looking after a small Dili kiosk owned by his brother.

But the idea that Julia Gillard would impose a massive new batch of refugees on a country barely able to stand on its own feet makes the 50-year-old wonder why he bothered. "We fought for independence, we gave everything we had for our country," he said yesterday, as rolling storm clouds gathered over the capital.

"We accept that what we have is not much, and even so the government gives us very little to get by on. But how is it that new refugees from outside could be paid to come here?

"If Australia wants to send us these refugees, and our government wants to accept them, then fine. But if that's the case, I invite the Australian government to come here and also pay attention to the plight of poor East Timorese like me."

Mr Freitas, at least, has a stable enough existence, keeping his brother's ramshackle store - more a hole in the wall with a couple of shelves bearing bottled water, cigarettes and sweets - in Dili's shantytown district of Becora.

It is just minutes away from the gleaming white government buildings and parliament house where, should Ms Gillard's proposal attract the support of Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao, the detail would be examined. Mr Gusmao was yesterday in a previously scheduled series of all-day cabinet meetings.

He refused to comment on Ms Gillard's asylum-seeker announcement, which effectively drew President Jose Ramos-Horta into an issue of national planning which, as head of state, he is supposed to have no input on.

Mr Ramos-Horta on Tuesday admitted he and Ms Gillard had discussed the idea but that it was just that - an idea.

But alongside the deafening silence emanating from Mr Gusmao's office yesterday, there were rumblings of dissent.

One senior government staffer said they "absolutely didn't agree" with the Gillard proposal.

"We have enough issues dealing with our own displaced persons problem. Who imagines we can take more refugees from outside?" the staffer said.

East Timor has made huge progress since the near civil war of 2006 that brought social structures to a grinding halt and eventually resulted in the electoral defeat of Mari Alkatiri's government.

Behind this progress is the country's huge maritime oil and gas reserves - negotiations over which could be part of the complicated solution to any potential asylum-seeker processing centre.

Fretilin president Francisco "Luolo" Guterres flew in from Mozambique yesterday and was met at the airport by Dr Alkatiri, who briefed him on the situation.

Fretilin party leaders have waged a constant campaign against Mr Gusmao and his coalition government.

For another dirt-poor Dili resident, Becora woman Theresa Da Silva, the big end of town and its decision-making barely figures.

But as she filled old motor-oil containers with water to haul up the hill for her nine-person family to cook, drink and wash with, she said: "It would be better that the government paid attention to us, before they paid it to foreigners who don't even belong here."

source: theaustralian.com.au

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