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UK accused of unlawful crackdown on visitors from Timor-Leste

UK accused of unlawful crackdown on visitors from Timor-Leste
Helder Assoncao, a permanent UK resident, was joined by his daughter Gracia Calvario Costa in the UK early last year, but his second daughter, Marize, has been refused UK entry. Photograph: Andrew Fox/The Guardian
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The Home Office has come under fire for enacting discriminatory measures for travellers from Timor-Leste, many of whom have the legal right to visit the UK yet have been denied entry in significant numbers.

After decades of visa-free travel, regulations were modified last week to compel East Timorese travelers to apply for visas before departing for the UK. According to the Foreign Office, this was done in response to a “sustained and significant” increase in the number of persons leaving the tiny island in south-east Asia with the goal of working illegally in this country.

However, members of East Timorese communities in the UK said they believed many family members have been wrongly denied the right to travel as visitors to the UK over the past year.

Some Border Force employees have told their union they have felt uneasy about being required to crack down on East Timorese arrivals in a way they believed was discriminatory. Lucy Moreton, the professional officer for the Immigration Service Union, which represents Border Force staff, said members had flagged concerns around pressure to refuse entry at meetings earlier this year.

“Members raised concerns with representatives that the instructions could be unlawful. This was passed on to management but there was no response,” she said.


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In 2022 1,066 arrivals from Timor-Leste were turned back at the border, 958 of them to an EU member state. In 2019 (before Covid disrupted travel) this figure was just 76.

Many of these people were returned to Portugal, which has regular flights from Timor-Leste, a former Portuguese colony. Enia Quadros, a representative of the Oxford Timorese Community association, said that some East Timorese visitors to the UK had been forced to sleep in parks in Lisbon after being unexpectedly refused entry at the UK border, but more recently Portuguese charities had made hostel spaces available to East Timorese people who had been turned away by the UK.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “There is no blanket policy of refusing entry to any nationals from a particular country. Any decision to refuse entry to an individual is always taken based on the information that the passenger provides, and not on the basis of their nationality. Border Force may stop any arriving passenger for the purposes of further examination where they are not immediately satisfied that they qualify for entry.”

Oxford has an estimated population of between 3,000 and 5,000 people from Timor-Leste, many of whom fled the fallout from the Indonesian occupation of the island and the struggle for independence, which was granted in 2002; the UK is estimated to be home to about 20,000 people from Timor-Leste.

Helder Assoncao has lived in Oxford for the past 13 years, arriving on a Portuguese passport, which he subsequently used to secure permanent residency, EU settled status, after Brexit. He has worked in the kitchens at the Ashmolean museum and as a Tesco warehouse employee. His daughter Gracia, 22, joined him early last year, and is working as a catering assistant at an Oxford hospital, but when his second daughter, Marize, 21, attempted to come to the UK last July she was turned back to Portugal. “They interviewed her without [an interpreter]. At the end of the interview they said: ‘We are deporting your daughter.’ I don’t know why she was refused,” Assoncao said. “I understand that immigration officers are trying to do their job, but she has a right to visit us.”

Quadros, a former UN interpreter, said she was regularly contacted by East Timorese people after they were refused entry at the border and had this month attempted to help an Oxford college kitchen worker whose 14-year-old son was refused entry to the country after travelling to visit his father for the summer. “There’s very little we can do to help,” she said.

The Timor-Leste embassy in London did not respond to a request for comment.

Source: The Guardian

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