In my second year at university I found myself short of cash. I had underestimated the expense of living out of college and so on the first week of Trinity, I printed off ten copies of my CV and went into every restaurant on Walton Street until I’d ran out. I soon got a job at a pizzeria, and it was probably the best waitressing job I’ve ever had mainly since my colleagues were great company and very interesting. There was a girl from Romania who gushed to me about a boy she met at Café Baba in Cowley, the head chef from Umbria who spoke perfect French and then there were the three men who worked as sous-chefs and pot-washers in the kitchen. Unlike the rest of the staff, these men didn’t speak English very well although this communication barrier didn’t prevent them from being extremely friendly, often saving me slices of pizza after a mis-order. I asked our manager, a Polish man, where these guys were from. 

“East Timor. I’ve worked in restaurants across Oxford for over twenty years and in every place I’ve worked, they’ve had someone from East Timor washing the dishes.” 

I’d never heard of the place. After a couple of weeks, one of the East Timorese sous-chefs was absent for a couple of days. I asked where he was and was told that he’d gone to Portugal for a week to sort out his new passport. I wondered why he had to go to Portugal to collect his new passport if he was from this unknown-country, East Timor. But then the phone rang for another delivery or the kitchen bell dinged telling me to take these starters to table four so I never asked. 

In the year since I hung up my waitressing apron, a year in which the UK ‘Got Brexit Done’ and the the COVID 19 pandemic has infiltrated every aspect of our lives, I have found the answers to these questions and learned more about the complex and often hidden struggles of the East Timorese community living in Oxford. 

No-one is sure how many East Timorese people are living in the UK, but estimates range between five and twenty thousand, with most of them living in Oxford. Fifteen thousand people is quite a large margin for error, and you may wonder how this statistic could be so inexact. First, very little English is spoken within the fairly insular community, which means that many are not registered with GPs and rarely find themselves filling in the usual forms which ask for place of birth and nationality. They face many common issues for immigrants from developing countries, and mainly work precarious jobs which are unprotected by contracts and are often paid less than minimum wage. Bocagio do Santos, an East Timorese translator and interpreter, told me that they usually work extremely long hours, often six days a week and socialise very little outside of the Timorese community. In short, these five to twenty thousand people fly under the radar. 

But the most confusing and obscuring factor limiting understanding of the size and needs of the East Timorese is that the vast majority of them living in the UK are EU citizens. East Timor was once a colony of Portugal — until 1975 in fact. According to the country’s Wikipedia page, “for the Portuguese, East Timor remained little more than a neglected trading post until the late nineteenth century, with minimal investment in infrastructure, health, and education”. This neglect carries on today: about 30% of the country is illiterate and about 37.4% of its citizens live on $1.25 a day. Portugal abandoned its colony after an internal revolution in 1974, and in November 1975 East Timor declared its independence after almost three hundred years of occupation. Within a month Indonesia invaded and what followed has been called genocide. After UN intervention, the country finally became independent in 2002. Any Timorese person born before this date, that is to say any Timorese person older than nineteen at the time of writing, is entitled to a Portuguese passport, and all the rights of a citizen on the European Union, including, until last month, the right to live and work in the UK.

When the first Timorese began arriving in the UK in the early 1990s, they were essentially asylum seekers and yet, since they were on paper no different to a French, German, Swedish or Greek person moving to the UK, over the past thirty years they have received far less support than people fleeing violence from other countries. They were presumed to have a comparable education, culture, recent history and financial situation to Brits—as is the nature of the EU. This, evidently, is not the case. 

However, with freedom of movement between the UK and the EU coming to an end this year, even the Timorese people’s status in the UK has become precarious. Like most other EU nationals living in the UK, over the past five years they have had to apply for settled or pre-settled status. However, due to poverty, unsociable working hours, language barriers and IT illiteracy, the process has been especially challenging for this community.

Fazil Kawani, a project coordinator at the charity Asylum Welcome Oxford outlined these difficulties to me. The charity has been offering services to the Timorese community and have made a real effort to communicate the urgency of their situation through their website and through emails to community leaders. However, as the East Timorese have not had any issues regarding their immigration status in the UK until recently, very few have come into contact with the charity. “They have many of the same issues as the other communities we’re helping but they have a different status in the country and that stops them from contacting us.”

Mr dos Santos is helping many Timorese people through the labyrinth of proving that they are entitled to stay in the UK. I first found his Facebook page ‘Tetum Solutions’ which has over eight thousand followers. Tetum is the language spoken by the East-Timorese. I couldn’t understand any of the posts, naturally, but occasionally phrases like ‘National Insurance Number’ or ‘pre-settled status’ or ‘Brexit’ jumped out. I wondered if this, a voluntarily run Facebook page, was actually the only source of information for these people on an issue that massively affects their rights and future in Britain. Mr dos Santos kindly agreed to speak to me. He outlined how the vast majority of his fellow Timorese are in the dark about the fundamentals of British culture, including Brexit and that, indeed, almost all their information on the subject comes from social media. As recently as last December, dos Santos has had people approaching him with only the slightest understanding of what Brexit was and what it means for their future. 

“Most are very worried,” he told me. “Some of them have no idea how to do these applications even four years after [the referendum]. In fact, it is very likely that there are Timorese people in the UK who are totally unaware that Brexit has happened. This could end up with them being in the country illegally and they won’t even know why.” When I pushed him, dos Santos roughly estimated that around 70% have begun the process of applying for pre-settled or settled status, but that many have fallen through the net of bureaucracy. For instance, since many are paid cash-in-hand, possibly somewhat off-the-books, they don’t have a payslip to prove that they are employed in the UK. 

He suggested I got in touch with Rosalia Costa, the community leader of the East Timorese in Oxford who also kindly agreed to discuss her community with me. She is responsible for liaising between the Oxford City Council and the community on issues such as housing and outreach. On the phone, she seemed very frustrated and worried. She assumed the post in September 2019 last year, and thanks to the pandemic, has had many of her plans dashed. I asked her if the city council or any other branches of government had attempted to communicate this increasingly urgent situation to this sizable Oxford community.

“There is not much effort to communicate with us,” she said, “If something is published then either myself or our committee has to translate it but so far there hasn’t been any effort to communicate in our language.

“There are about four thousand Timorese people in Oxford so presumably we should have a service in our language to help the people who don’t want to speak up — leaflets or dropping door to door, but no, we haven’t seen anything like that.” 

She also hinted that there is often a reluctance on the part of the East Timorese to ask for help. 

“Many Timorese people disadvantage themselves by not seeking help when they need it, because of the fear of shame and judgement. You know you need help but you don’t want to ask.” 

The City Council highlighted that there have been efforts to reach out to the community on this issue saying:

“Oxford’s East Timorese community are mostly here as EU citizens with Portuguese nationality. We are encouraging all our EU citizens to apply for EU Settled Status by the deadline of 30 June 2021, so that they can continue to legally live and work in the UK. We have partnered with Asylum Welcome to support their Europa Welcome service, which helps EU citizens who are struggling to make their application, and we have specific communications in the main East Timorese language of Tetum to reach this community. The Europa Welcome team have also been doing their own community outreach.”

Mr Kawani of Asylum Welcome believes a formal support system is necessary, and that with the Council’s support, the charity is trying to provide one. “They’re not exercising their rights. The online application is a big issue. Many of them don’t have access to IT equipment and lack the technical skills to make their application.” 

These impediments to making an application come from years of poverty and isolation within the city, which mean that the Timorese are often unaware of their entitlements as EU citizens, such as Universal Credit, council housing or child benefits. When I searched something along the lines of ‘East Timorese Oxford’ into Google, one of only things which appeared was a 2018 investigation by NHS Oxford on the health needs of the East Timorese and a report of a Commissioning meeting responding to the findings of this paper. The latter report wrote: “Poverty is visible within our East Timorese community…Within Oxfordshire members of our East Timorese population are often living in houses of multiple occupancy, paying extremely high rents, with a lack of contracts, unsafe environments, damp, infestations, and poor safety standards. Exploitation by employers, with no contacts and wages lower than the minimum wage, is common.” 

Mr dos Santos confirmed this, explaining that since even three pounds an hour (less than half minimum wage) is far greater than what most could hope to earn in East Timor, the Timorese in Oxford are reluctant to ask to be paid minimum wage, or don’t even really deem it necessary or do not have the language skills to ask. Asylum Welcome and community leader Mrs Costa began arrangements working with an employment charity and social enterprise called Aspire Oxfordshire to provide English language classes for the East Timorese, at times convenient for them, to alleviate this isolation and the issues caused by language barriers. However, due to the pandemic these have been postponed. 

This is one of many ways in which the community has been particularly badly hit by COVID 19. Despite commendable efforts by the East Timorese government to improve the health infrastructure of the country, most Timorese people living in the UK had essentially zero access to healthcare growing up. As a result they often don’t have a great understanding of ‘Western’ medicine and practices. Mr dos Santos told me that some members of the community have far more faith in traditional healing and believe that illnesses are caused by past misdemeanours. Many pregnant Timorese women turn up at the hospital for the very first time on the day they go into labour having not had any antenatal scans or check-ups. Naturally this spikes serious concern among hospital staff and often leads to social services getting involved in the family. Once this link to the state is established, there are often massive improvements such as the family is registered with a GP and has easy access to housing. However, with about 90% Timorese in the UK being men and 60% of them being unmarried, this link is not often established.   

It should be clear how precarious employment, a lack of access to healthcare, cramped housing and no information on current affairs have combined in a terrible way for the Timorese during the pandemic. Once again, despite efforts made by the Council and other services, for many, Mr. dos Santos’ Facebook page is the only real source of information on COVID 19. Since he is working full-time, Mr. dos Santos is not always able to update the page with a Tetum translations as soon as restrictions are announced by the UK government. This means that when the Tier System was announced last year, many of his followers were totally clueless until over a week later. He did a loose translation for me of some of the comments underneath his post which largely expressed total complete confusion and incredulousness. Imagine your principal source of information about this all-consuming pandemic being a Facebook page which rests on the shoulders of one, albeit very dedicated, single individual. Awareness of the impact of COVID 19 is particularly an issue amongst the Timorese, since tuberculosis is very prevalent in the community and East Timor has one of the highest smoking rates in the entire world. 

The Council informed me that ,“in the pandemic [it has] have provided translated communications for a number of communities. We also work with community partner organisations, who have strong connections with different communities, to provide practical support and advice. The Council offers free translation for its customer services to help ensure everyone in the city is able to get the advice and support they need.” 

However, it did not specify if any translations had been preemptively provided in Tetum. And although this free translation service is no doubt indispensable to many, the East Timorese have been shown to be less likely to engage with Council services.

This contrasts to the situation in Tower Hamlets in London, where the council have put up huge posters and leaflets and sent out a monthly newsletter explaining social distancing and government announcements in Bengali to ensure its large Bangladeshi community is informed. Nothing similar has been put in place in areas of Oxford, for instance Blackbird Leys, which is believed to have the highest concentration of Timorese people in the UK. At the time of the last census (2011) there were 222,127 Bangladeshis living in London, which explains to some degree why this step was an obvious one; Bangladeshis living in East London are a much larger community than the Timorese in Oxford. But equally if you compare that very precise number (albeit ten years old) to the inexact estimation of the Timorese population in the UK, there is another possible explanation. Since, on paper, there is often little difference between other EU immigrants and the East Timorese, city councils, but particularly larger branches of government only have rough estimations of the size and very distinct needs of the community.

This often extends to social and legal issues. For instance, East Timor’s conception of law and order is very different to the UK’s, or indeed any other European country. Dos Santos tactfully explained this to me: “In East-Timor, if someone insults your parents, it is normal for you to go round their house and [physically] fight them. It’s very normal.” The fact that this is not the case in the UK is not always explicitly explained and this has led many Timorese finding themselves in hot water. A lot of Mr dos Santos’ work is interpreting between the police and an East Timorese person who hasn’t realised what they are doing is illegal until it is too late. Filial loyalty in East Timor is rather seen as Grievous Bodily Harm in the UK. This massive culture clash is far from inevitable. Many East Timorese people work aboard to send money back home to their families. Since 2009, East Timor is one of only fifteen countries which has access to the South Korea’s Employment Permit System allowing Timorese workers aged between eighteen and thirty-nine to fill job roles on temporary visas for up to five years. When they relocate to these countries, the Timorese workers have induction programs and lessons on Korean culture, language and way of life. This is not to say the scheme is without issues (findings have suggested that while the vast majority of workers said they were treated well, they received very little time off and were sometimes expected to work when ill) but it did mean that workers had a far greater understanding of their host country— for instance very few got into fights. There is also a very successful seasonal worker program in Australia in which the government ensures that the workers are paid minimum-wage. Mr dos Santos suggested that similar programs ought to be set up in the UK in which, at the very least, British laws and their own rights are explained to them.  

Both Rosalia Costa, the community’s leader, and Mr dos Santos showed a lot of optimism about the next generation of Timorese people living in the UK and believe that they may be the answer to many of the community’s issues. Most of them were born here and have been raised through the British education system. After a sobering discussion, it was really heart-warming to hear dos Santos speaking about his own children. He explained how, if he and his wife happen to be out of the house, his sixteen year old son will answer the queries of any Timorese person who stops by and translate any document for them, in lieu of his father.  

“They are absolutely amazing at adapting to the country. Many of them are at university and work as nurses and doctors,” said dos Santos. “Their English is perfect and many of them help their parents and grandparents. I’m very proud of them.” 

The deadline to apply for settled or pre-settled status is this June. As already discussed, whilst some have already completed or started their applications, some will have not even begun the process. Mrs. Costa told me that she is especially concerned by the fact that people are still arriving from East Timor with not much of an understanding of what awaits them and not knowing that they may not have spent enough time in the UK to be granted even pre-settled status. The East Timorese have been an established Oxford community for almost thirty years. Many improvements have been made to their situation and the new community projects and younger generations offer real hope. However, with challenges as large and complex as Brexit, the pandemic, and the profound and mutual lack of understanding between the community and the UK government, many East Timorese people’s futures are far from certain.