Timorese citizens living abroad in places like Washington should stay put, the foreign minister says. (Image/American Councils for Intl Education)

DILI, 07 April 2020 (TATOLI) – Timor’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Dionísio Babo Soares, is pleading with Timorese citizens currently abroad not to return home, to avoid spreading Covid-19.

While countries in the west are grappling with how to repatriate their citizens, amid travel restrictions and flight cancellations, the Timor-Leste government has moved to close the country’s border to all citizens, beginning Monday (April 13).

Mr Soares said Timorese abroad should stay where they are.

“[We] ask all Timorese citizens, includes [those] with friends and family who are currently living abroad, to continue to live there and trust the health system,” he told reporters at the Presidential Palace in Dili yesterday.

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Foreign Minister, Díonosio Babo Soares (Image/Tatoli)

The minister said governments across the globe are ramping up spending on healthcare to cope with the pandemic.

“With respect and love to all of our people who are abroad, [help us] prevent the disease so that it does not to threaten our public health,” Minister Soares said.

Hundreds of international students and seasonal workers returned home from Indonesia and Australia, respectively, over the past few weeks, adding to the already overburdened quarantine sites. Some 884 people remain in mandatory quarantine sites across the country.

Mr Soares said Timor’s foreign embassies will continue providing support to expatriates, and now is not the time to return home.

“Please don’t return to Timor. Stay there, because we cannot predict [if] in or or two more weeks we will close the borders entirely,” he said.

Taking care of citizens abroad

Some 50,000 Timorese people are currently working or travelling abroad, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MNEK) said. The global downturn triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic has put millions out of work as businesses close in line with health measures. In asking its citizens to stay in place, the government is potentially creating a welfare headache for expatriates.

Mr Soares said the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MNEK) is working on a plan to gather the names of people abroad in need of accommodation.

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“Those [who can] continue to do their job, they don’t have a problem. And other workers who are in Australia [with the Seasonal Worker Program] are housed by the government,” he said.

The task is immense. The ministry would need to track down citizens in almost every country in the world, Mr Soares said, including Portuguese-speaking countries like Cabo Verde, Mozambique and Portugal.

In Indonesia, for example, the minister said there are 8,000 students and other Timorese citizens living in the country. Those on a government-funded scholarship program will be “easy” to contact, he said. But reaching the other Timorese in the country will be difficult.

Some 1,000 students have already returned home from Indonesia, according to MNEK.

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Minister Babo said the ministry is responding to the demands of some parliamentarians, asking the government to do more to help Timorese abroad as the virus passes 1.4 million infections worldwide.

“The government will find a way and take measures to help, according to our capcity…[but] we ask to all Timorese abroad to stay calm and don’t go anywhere else, and to avoid the virus. Once the situation goes back to normal [you may] move again,” he said.

Note: This story was updated to reflect the government’s announced border closure, which took place on Wednesday morning Dili time.

Read the original Tetum: Governu Husu Timoroan iha Rai-Li’ur Labele Mai Timor-Leste

Journalist: Cipriano Colo

Editors: Robert Baird, Cancio Ximenes

Translation: Nelia Borges

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