NUSA DUA, Indonesia (AFP) – Asian countries pledged Wednesday to take a collective approach to people smuggling and asylum seekers including a possible regional processing centre, after talks in Indonesia.
Ministers from around the Asia-Pacific region signed a non-binding framework agreement to tackle smuggling networks and humanely process the large numbers of irregular migrants moving through the region.
But an Australian proposal to establish a processing centre in East Timor seemed to have gone nowhere, after Dili said it was still considering the idea mooted last year by Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard.
Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd said he had discussed the proposal with East Timorese Deputy Foreign Minister Alberto Carlos, who "indicated that this matter had yet to be deliberated upon" by the East Timor government.
"So we will wait the outcome of those deliberations," Rudd told reporters in Bali.
Australian Immigration Minister Chris Bowen, who visited Dili late last year to discuss the proposal, said there was still a "range of views in East Timor's government with how to handle it".
"It's a controversial issue in East Timor as you would expect. Certainly the communications we received from the highest levels of the East Timorese government is that discussions should continue," he said.
Asia is a transit region for refugees and other undocumented migrants seeking to escape hardship in countries such as Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Iran, Iraq and Sri Lanka.
Many make their way to Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand to link up with people smuggling networks who promise them passage to the West.
Australia has seen a sharp rise in the arrival of such migrants on rickety boats from the Indonesian archipelago, leading to overcrowding at detention centres and a furious political row over border security.
In December about 50 migrants died when a wooden fishing vessel foundered in rough weather on Australia's remote Christmas Island, which hosts a migrant processing centre.
The agreement adopted at the so-called Bali Process, gathering more than 30 states including countries of origin and transit, reiterated a determination to "eliminate" people smuggling networks.
It also said that "where appropriate and possible" asylum seekers should have access to consistent assessment processes.
It raised the "possible establishment of regional assessment arrangements, which might include a centre or centres".