This week, the East Timorese Nobel Peace Prize winner, Dr. Jose Ramos Horta appealed to the Timor-Leste government to accept the Rohingya refugees, who are stranded in rickety boats off the coasts of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand.
Dr. Ramos Horta said "I propose that Timor-Leste welcomes the 100 to 1,000 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, over a period of up to 10 years; they would be settled in regions like Laklubar and Soibada, very quiet and relatively under-populated and with cooler climate".
According to him, extending support and solidarity to the Rohingya refugees "is a unique historical opportunity for Timor-Leste to affirm itself as a People attached to the values of human solidarity, morality and ethics".
Indeed, since gaining independence in 2002, Timor-Leste has ratified a significant number of human rights and humanitarian treaties, including the 1949 Geneva Conventions and their 1977 Additional Protocols, as well as conventions on refugees.
Key amongst these is Article (1) of the United Nations Convention and Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees. It asserts that a person is deemed a refugee if there is "a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country".
Being a party to the conventions on refugees, one would undoubtedly argue that Timor-Leste is legally bound under international law to protect the Rohingya refugees. First, they are genuine refugees and fleeing persecutions on the basis of their ethnicity and religion. Second, there are strong indications that they will be persecuted, tortured and subsequently killed if repatriated back to Burma.
Despite the aforementioned claims, welcoming the Rohingya refugees, as suggested by Dr. Ramos Horta, is unviable due to the following reasons.
First, currently the economic conditions of Timor-Leste are not suitable for the Rohingya refugees. Timor-Leste is one of the least developed countries in Asia with high youth unemployment. The International Labour Organization (ILO) report 2013claims that while every year between 15,000–between 20,000 young people enter the labour market, only 14.6% is employed in the formal sector. The reminder is employed in informal sectors, such as subsistence farming, crafting and other seasonal works.
Likewise, the report points out that around 70% of the population of Timor–Leste resides in the rural areas where poverty is high compared to that in the urban centres. The report, subsequently, concludes that most poor communities are now living in rural areas, with many of them having no access to modern infrastructures such as roads, housings, markets, schools, hospitals, and other social services. These pervasive problems, in turn, have contributed to undermining the country's power to draw in foreign investment that is critical for economic development.
Therefore, it can be argued that if Timor-Leste did accept the Rohingya refugees, it would certainly generate social tensions between the new arrivals and the locals over social benefits and entitlements. If the antagonistic attitudes are not handled properly, it could lead to a surge in violence and subsequently descend the country into chaos.
Second, since gaining independence in 2002, Timor-Leste has made a substantial contribution to the humanitarian causes around the world. Even though being an oil dependent country, over the last ten years, successive governments have generously committed over half a billion dollars to solving humanitarian crisis worldwide. The money used to fund tsunami relief in Aceh, recent earthquake relief operation in Nepal, elections in Guinea-Bissau, peace talks in South Sudan and many others. This act of solidarity will remain so for the next few decades to come.
In spite of those contributions, Timor-Leste remains fragile and has enormous development challenges ahead. Among them include the need to boost economic growth in order to reduce unemployment and poverty; invest in health and education; address transnational crimes such as money laundering, drug smuggling, drug trafficking; promote gender equality; enhance environmental sustainability and others. Though Timor-Leste is morally bound to solve the refugee crisis, for the time being it should not be seen as a matter of priority.