Police ground children in Dili

This article was published on 10.11.2007 in The Sidney Morning Herald.

AUTHORITIES have stopped a woman from leaving East Timor with 23 children from an orphanage run by an Australian after a UN agency raised concerns.

Police descended on Dili airport on Thursday after the woman approached immigration officials seeking to get the children flown to Malaysia. Authorities had been contacted by the international agency UNICEF about the plan to take the children abroad.

„UNICEF suspected the project’s intentions could be shady,“ said Inspector Elias Mendonca, an immigration adviser to East Timor’s State Secretary for Security. „So a team of UN police was deployed, with UNICEF people.“

The woman was questioned but has since been released. She has been identified as an Indonesian employee of the Eastern Petroleum company.

Authorities are studying the documents she presented to immigration officers.

The children – aged from 10 into their teens – were from the Hadomi Timor Orphans‘ Foundation. The orphanage’s director, Indonesian-born Australian Lala Noronha, was waiting for the children in Malaysia.

A priest with the group said an agreement had been signed between the orphanage and a school in Malaysia.

The Social Welfare Minister, Maria Domingas Fernandes Alves, said yesterday the children were stopped from leaving East Timor in compliance with laws on children’s rights. „The East Timorese government has ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child … and will ensure that the situation is resolved accordingly.“

Authorities were carefully assessing documents associated with the trip, she said.

An immigration official said the documents showed that not all the children were orphans.

„Timorese law is very clear. Children under 17 cannot travel abroad without parental consent or without being properly accompanied,“ the official said.

During the Indonesian occupation, some East Timorese children taken abroad with parental consent were estranged from their families by a Muslim upbringing or prevented from seeing their parents by their adoptive families.