UK accused of unlawful crackdown on visitors to Timor-Leste | Immigration and asylum

The Home Office has been accused of implementing discriminatory policies towards visitors to Timor-Leste, many of whom have the right to travel to the UK but who have been blocked in large numbers.

Regulations were changed last week to require East Timorese visitors to apply for a visa before traveling to the UK, after decades of visa-free travel. The Foreign Office said this followed a “sustained and significant” increase in the number of people coming to the small Southeast Asian island with the intention of working here illegally.

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

Some border force workers have told their union they feel uncomfortable being required to curb East Timorese arrivals in a way they consider discriminatory. Lucy Moreton, the professional officer for the Immigration Services Union, which represents Border Force personnel, said members had reported concerns about pressure to refuse entry to meetings earlier this year.

“Members have raised concerns with representatives that the instructions may be illegal. This was relayed to management but there was no response,” she said.

In 2022, 1,066 arrivals from Timor-Leste were turned away at the border, including 958 to an EU Member State. In 2019 (before Covid disrupted travel) that figure was just 76.

Many of those people have been sent back to Portugal, which has regular flights from Timor-Leste, a former Portuguese colony. Enia Quadros, a representative from Oxford Timorese Community, said 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 hotel rooms available to East Timorese who had been turned away by the UK.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “There is no general policy of refusing entry to nationals of any particular country. Any decision to refuse entry to an individual is always made on the basis of the information provided by the passenger, not on the basis of their nationality. Border forces may detain any arriving passenger for further examination if they are not immediately satisfied that they are admissible for entry.

Oxford has an estimated population of between 3,000 and 5,000 Timor-Leste people, 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 around 20,000 people from Timor-Leste.

Helder Assoncao has lived in Oxford for 13 years, arriving with a Portuguese passport, which he later used to gain permanent residency, European Settlement Status, after Brexit. He worked in the kitchens of the Ashmolean Museum and as a Tesco warehouse worker. His daughter Gracia, 22, joined him early last year and works as a catering assistant at an Oxford hospital, but when his second daughter Marize, 21, tried to come to the UK last July she was sent back to Portugal. “They interrogated her without [an interpreter]. At the end of the interview, they said, “We are deporting your daughter. I don’t know why it was refused,” Assoncao said. “I understand that the immigration officers are trying to do their job, but she has the right to visit us.”

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