Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard has shifted ground on Tuesday’s announcement floating the idea of an Australian refugee processing post to be set up in East Timor.
The announcement had been met with serious doubts from the Timorese public and political camps. Fretilin MP José Teixeira said it was highly unlikely any plans for a Timorese refugee post would materialise.
“I doubt that the Prime Minister would ever accept any such proposal anyway. It is very premature to take the media hype and what the Australian government says as any serious proposal at this stage,” he said.
Gillard had unveiled the idea after talks with Timor Leste’s President José Ramos Horta on Monday.
She also implicated New Zealand’s role in the process, stating that both “East Timor and New Zealand are vital countries to this initiative” and that Prime Minister John Key was “open to considering this initiative constructively”.
Gillard clarified her statements on Friday on Brisbane’s Radio 4BC, saying that although she “did outline a vision to have a regional processing centre” the location was yet to emerge from discussions.
“I’m not going to leave undisturbed the impression that I made an announcement about a specific location,’’ she told 4BC.
However, other critics say that Gillard has misjudged the nature of foreign relations between East Timor and Australia.
Fidelis Magalhaes, former head of National Consensus Dialogue for Truth, Justice and Reconciliation, said Timorese refugee processing post unlikely.
Former presidential adviser and head of the National Consensus Dialogue for Truth, Justice and Reconciliation, now studying at the London School of Economics, Fidelis Magalhaes said that a refugee post would alter the nature of relationship between the two countries.
“It’s true that Australia is considered to be one of our good friends, but it is also our biggest bully. And, our recent history has taught us to be quite suspicious of Australia.
“What’s more, now that the opposition has voiced its opposition, it’s beyond doubt that the government will turn down the proposal,” he said.
Magalhaes added that the core issue was the possible facilitation of Australia’s “inhumane refugee policy”, as well as concerns about increased security issues:
“It is enough that we have hundreds of Australian soldiers on our soil as part of the bilateral stabilization force. This, if anything, [would] add to our existing preoccupation of Australia’s military influence.”
José Teixeira said that the biggest impact of such an initiative would be social “burden”.
“We are a post conflict society that lived a very insular and repressive life under the Indonesians. I think we are still coming to terms with ourselves and do not need the mix of a thousands of people whose dreams are being shattered and frustrated to become a part of that potentially volatile mix,” he said.
Teixeira also warned of problems that could arise from bringing in refugees who “would be housed and have access to services superior to [local] people overnight”.
Immigration has been a contentious election issue in Australia, with several calls to “toughen” border security policies.
During the 2008-2009 period, the Australian government granted 6,499 refugee visas under its Humanitarian Program. The Humanitarian Program has set aside 13,750 places for applicants, 6,000 of which are tagged for refugee status. Most were granted to Iraqi and Burmese asylum seekers.
However, boatloads of unauthorized arrivals claiming asylum have spiked under the Rudd government, since it relaxed the stringent Pacific Solution policy (2001-2007).The policy diverted asylum seekers at sea to centres in Nauru, Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, and Christmas Island.
Unauthorized sea arrivals rose from 161 people and 7 boats in 2008, to 59 boats and 2750 people in 2009. This year alone 75 boats and over 3500 people have been intercepted and sent to the country’s only operative offshore detention centre on Christmas Island.
Josephine Latu is a postgraduate communication studies student from Tonga at AUT University’s Pacific Media Centre who is also contributing editor of Pacific Media Watch.