Filed in World News by on July 8, 2010

E Timor ‘open’ to Australia’s refugee centre plan

East Timor says it is open to the idea of housing a refugee processing centre – as debate intensifies over the plan by Australia’s prime minister.

Both East Timor’s president and prime minister said they would discuss the proposal, although the deputy PM predicted it would be rejected.

Australia’s new PM Julia Gillard says a regional processing centre would thwart people traffickers.

But opposition to the proposal is growing in East Timor.

Australia currently sends asylum seekers to its Indian Ocean processing centre on Christmas Island.

However, the detention centre is overcrowded and many asylum seekers have been moved to the mainland while their applications are assessed.
‘Island prison’

Under Ms Gillard’s plan, people seeking asylum in Australia would be housed in the centre in East Timor while their credentials were checked.
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The purpose would be to ensure that people smugglers have no product to sell
Julia Gillard
Australia Prime Minister

East Timor’s President Jose Ramos-Horta said Ms Gillard had raised the proposal with him – and that he was open to the idea as long as it was a temporary stop for people before they were resettled in other countries.

“I wouldn’t want Timor-Leste to become an island prison for displaced persons fleeing violence,” he said, referring to East Timor by its official name.

Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao struck a similar note saying they were “open-minded and open for discussion in participation to solve the problem”.

“This is not only Australia’s problem but also the region’s problem. So the government cannot avoid this issue,” he said.

However, his deputy Jose Luis Guterres voiced growing concerns in East Timor that the country – among the smallest and most impoverished in the world – will not have capacity to run such a centre.

He suggested Australia had the capacity to deal with its asylum seeker issues internally, or by boosting aid to countries where the refugees come from, primarily Sri Lanka and Afghanistan.

“Australia, as a big country, has the potential to create the refugee centre in their country without importing new problems to other countries,” he said.
Forthcoming election

Ms Gillard announced her intention to pursue the idea earlier this week, saying: “A regional processing centre removes the incentive, once and for all, for the people smugglers to send boats to Australia”.

“The purpose would be to ensure that people smugglers have no product to sell. Arriving by boat would just be a ticket back to the regional processing centre,” she told the Lowy Institute think-tank in Sydney.

Ms Gillard also announced an immediate restart to the processing of asylum claims from Sri Lankans, but said that the same suspension would not be lifted for Afghans.

The leader of the opposition, Tony Abbott, has also announced a new asylum policy – saying he would “turn back the boats” by restoring the Pacific Solution set up by former Prime Minister John Howard, under which new arrivals were placed in detention centres in Pacific states, such as Nauru and Papua New Guinea.

That system was scrapped by former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, and Ms Gillard said that her “government is not interested in pursuing a new Pacific Solution”.

Treatment of asylum seekers is a contentious issue in Australia, even though asylum seekers represent a tiny fraction of the country’s annual immigration intake – just 1.6%.

The debate about border protection comes ahead of elections in Australia, expected this year.


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