Parliamentarians and community leaders criticized the government yesterday for forcing 42 East Timorese who fled violence in the capital Dili in May to return to their homeland.
The 42 men, women and children were told on Friday that they have until midnight tomorrow to go home, an Immigration Department spokeswoman said yesterday.
All of them, currently living in the Australian cities of Melbourne and Darwin, had made failed appeals to Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone for extensions of their humanitarian visas.
Paul Henderson, a Darwin-based minister of the Northern Territory Government, criticized the federal government for ordering the East Timorese out the day after announcing on Thursday that an extra 120 Australian soldiers were to be sent to Dili because of escalating tensions.
"One arm of government is saying things aren't too good in East Timor and we need to send more troops over there and another arm of government is saying it's safe for these 14 to go home," Henderson told Australian Broadcasting Corp radio, referring to the 14 East Timorese who are residing in his home town.
The group was among 54 East Timorese rescued from Dili in May when Australia sent a battalion of troops to quell violence that killed at least 30 people and drove 150,000 from their homes.
The violence had snowballed from clashes between government security forces and soldiers dismissed in March by former Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri.
A dozen of the 54 who were initially given three-month Australian humanitarian visas had already returned to their homes in East Timor voluntarily, the immigration spokeswoman said on condition of anonymity, citing department policy.
The remainder were given two-week extensions on Aug. 24, the spokeswoman said.
She declined to detail why the East Timorese were brought to Australia in first place, citing privacy considerations.
"Because of their personal circumstances, they were particularly vulnerable given the political and security situation in Dili then," the spokeswoman said.
Vanstone had decided the remaining 42 should go home after considering the latest government report on security in East Timor, she said.
Prime Minister John Howard told Parliament on Thursday the level of violence in Dili had fallen in recent weeks.
But Australia was immediately sending an extra 120 troops because the escape of 57 inmates from Dili's prison on Aug. 30 had "escalated tensions," he said.
At the time of Howard's announcement, Australia had 930 military personnel and 180 police in East Timor.
Meanwhile, peacekeepers fired tear gas to stop fighting at a refugee camp in Dili yesterday, in the latest unrest to hit the tiny territory, eye-witnesses said.
Dozens of youths armed with slingshots and stones attacked a refugee camp opposite the UN headquarters around midday.
"The attack happened at 12.00 [midday] with tens of youths. They threw stones and used catapults, and then the refugees fought back," Americo Marcal, a guard at the Obrigada Barracks camp, told reporters.
Around 50 Australian, Malaysian and Portuguese police were trying to stop the brawl between the youths and the camp's inhabitants, who are also armed with rocks and slingshots, said a reporter outside the camp.
"One canister of tear gas was thrown into the camp," said the reporter.