East Timor hostile to Australian asylum-seeker plan
By Nelson da Cruz (AFP) – 18 hours ago
DILI — Opposition grew in East Timor on Wednesday to an Australian proposal to process Australia-bound asylum seekers in the impoverished country, despite President Jose Ramos-Horta's guarded support.
The Nobel Peace Prize laureate said new Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard had raised the idea with him in a phone call on Monday but he had yet to hear the details or discuss it with the government.
"I wouldn't want Timor-Leste (East Timor) to become an island prison for displaced persons fleeing violence," Ramos Horta told Australian television Wednesday.
He said East Timor would expect financial assistance to care for the migrants and provide them with jobs so they did not sit "idle in the centre as prisoners".
A statement from Ramos-Horta's office said that as a "man of deep humanitarian convictions" he would "never turn his back to people fleeing tyranny and violence".
Gillard said Tuesday she had initial approval from Ramos-Horta to send asylum seekers to a new detention centre in East Timor for processing, in a pre-election bid to stem an influx of undocumented migrant boat arrivals.
She said a regional processing centre would "wreck" the people-smuggling trade that brings dozens of boats to Australia's north each year, but denied reviving the hardline "Pacific Solution" of ex-prime minister John Howard.
Ramos-Horta said the idea would have to be cleared with Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao and the United Nations, but promised Dili would "look at any proposals with an open mind, based purely on humanitarian considerations".
Gusmao's deputy, Jose Luis Guterres, said however the tiny nation of just over a million people was not ready or willing to handle an influx of migrants.
He added that East Timor, which is still dependent on foreign aid more than a decade after its bloody vote to split from Indonesian rule, had rejected a similar Australian proposal in the past.
"But based on the current analysis, without any special study, Timor-Leste is not in a condition to accept a detention centre. Moreover, there has been a precedent in which the government has rejected this idea," he told AFP.
"In my analysis, I believe this is a difficult issue and the people will have objections."
In comments to Australian media, he added: "We have so many issues that we have to deal with and bringing another problem, another issue to the country, I don't think it's wise for any politician to do it".
Opposition Fretilin party lawmaker Arsenio Bano expressed outright opposition to the plan.
"The Fretilin party rejects this because Timor-Leste is not an advance team or representative to defend the interests of Australia," he said.
"The refugees want to go to Australia and not Timor-Leste, so Australia has to handle the matter and not make Timor-Leste a quarantine place for refugees."
Gillard said she would be "relentlessly pursuing discussions in the region" about the proposal, and admitted it was likely to take time to negotiate.
Australia is a major donor of aid to East Timor and has about 400 troops there as the leader of an international force providing security for the fledgling country.
Independent human rights expert Edio Saldanha said East Timor had no system for monitoring or controlling migrants.
"In reality, this country is still young and just came out of a post-conflict situation. The country is still developing. There are many problems," he said.
"We can't accept everyone so we don't want any problems or troubles that could make Timor-Leste a victim of this policy."