East Timor asylum plan a legal minefield

Jose Teixeira

Fretilin parliamentarian Jose Teixeira says Julia Gillard’s proposal would be an unfair burden on his country. Source: The Australian


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EAST Timor MP Jose Teixeira was thoroughly perplexed yesterday by Julia Gillard's announcement of plans for an asylum-seeker processing centre.

"It would be a legal minefield, to say the least, with the amendments that would be required to the Immigration Act to make it happen," said Mr Teixeira, who was resources and energy minister in the former Fretilin government and now sits on the parliamentary foreign affairs committee.

"Fretilin disagrees with Timor Leste being set up as a processing centre for asylum-seekers bound for Australia," he said. "It is unfair to burden emerging countries like ours with such an issue.

"We take our international commitments seriously, and believe to go down this path would not be a good way to comply with our international obligations and our constitutional guarantees for those seeking asylum."

His scepticism was shared by many, including some in Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao's own coalition administration.

One government source, who asked not to be named, said Ms Gillard's announcement came as a complete shock.

"To be blindsided like this? No, it wasn't on," the source said. "Nobody was happy."

East Timorese President Jose Ramos-Horta last night confirmed he had given his in-principle support to Ms Gillard but admitted to the ABC's Lateline program that he was yet to speak to Mr Gusmao about the plan. "We will discuss, but we need to hear some more specific details," he said. "If our Prime Minister agrees with the concept of the idea, then let's have our technical people meet to work out some details."

But a senior source said the announcement by Ms Gillard "should have been done with more respect.

"It was done with a complete disregard for domestic politics."

Mr Teixeira said the young country's constitution had deliberately put an emphasis on the plight of the displaced, given East Timor's experience with exactly that issue, and would not easily accommodate the sort of measure being proposed by Ms Gillard. Other Timor analysts agreed the plan was unlikely to go through, with some pointing out that Mr Ramos-Horta did not even have the authority to agree to such a deal. "(Mr Ramos-Horta) is the President, and as such he's not a member of the government," one said. "The President can't make deals, he can't make policy, he can't make laws. The government controls policy and it controls bilateral relationship issues."

An outraged opposition politician was heard to say shortly after Ms Gillard's statement: "So they don't want the LNG (liquefied natural gas) to be processed here, but they do want us to process asylum-seekers," referring to the ongoing disputes over access to East Timor's undersea wealth.

Mr Ramos-Horta told the ABC's Lateline program last night that many details of the proposal still needed to be ironed out.

He said he supported the reigonal response proposed by Julia Gillard, however he said he would like to see asylum seekers have freedom while awaiting processing.

"All we would need if we agree is . . . financial assistance to manage the centre, to feed the people, to provide them while they are here with medical care, with clothing, with proper shelter and maybe with a temporary job while they are waiting so they don't sit idle in the center as prisoners," he told Lateline.

"I wouldn't want this place to become an island prison for these persons ... If they are here they would have a certain freedom."

East Timor has no facility capable of housing hundreds, let alone thousands, of the Afghan, Iraqi, Iranian, Sri Lankan and other asylum-seekers making their way via Malaysia, through Indonesia and on to Australia, usually via either Ashmore Reef or Christmas Island.

Such facilities would need to be built from scratch and would far overshadow the living conditions of most ordinary East Timorese.

Deputy Prime Minister for Social Affairs Jose Luis Guterres said the proposal was "not an easy matter" for the young country and would need to be examined by foreign affairs and national security ministries.

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