No refugee centre for us: East Timor
Tom Allard and Kirsty Needham
March 29, 2011
EAST Timor has dismissed Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard's proposal for a refugee processing centre on its soil on the eve of a multinational summit on people smuggling.
The rebuff comes as the fledgling nation's foreign minister has shunned the Bali Process ministerial forum altogether, choosing instead to go to Fiji, a pariah state for Canberra, to observe a small gathering of Pacific nations.
East Timor's chief diplomat, Zacarias da Costa, will be replaced by his deputy, Alberto Carlos, who gave the Australian government little cause for optimism in an interview with The Age yesterday.
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''It is not a priority,'' said Dr Carlos, when asked about East Timor's attitude to the proposed centre. ''Timor Leste is a new country. We have lots of problems to deal with. Our priority is to find the best way to solve our problems. We have to improve the living conditions here. At this stage, we don't see any urgency to discuss this matter.''
It is a message that has clearly got through to Immigration Minister Chris Bowen, who spent yesterday playing down expectations before the key meeting, which begins today in Bali. The detail and location of a regional processing centre would not even be discussed at the meeting, he said.
The summit, he said, should be seen as a ''stepping-stone meeting'' focused on a regional framework to combat people smuggling: ''We are arguing for a regional framework and we have argued that a regional processing centre would be part of that regional framework.''
Ms Gillard flagged the refugee facility in East Timor before last year's election to combat widespread anxiety about the surge in asylum seekers arriving in Australia after the Labor government relaxed immigration laws in 2008.
Regional leaders have shown great ambivalence about the proposal since it was floated, and there is heated opposition in East Timor's Parliament.
Reflecting the displeasure, Mr da Costa now considers it more important to go to Fiji as an observer at the Melanesian Spearhead Group meeting, a forum of four Pacific states.
More than 45 nations and organisations such as the UNHCR will participate at the Bali Process summit. Given Fiji's dictator, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, expelled Australia's high commissioner in 2009 and is reviled in Canberra, Mr Da Costa's preference to attend the talks in Suva appears a direct diplomatic snub. Asked about the slight, Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Kevin Rudd, who reportedly expressed deep reservations about the Timor refugee centre before he was toppled as leader by Ms Gillard, said he was looking forward to meeting with a ''substantial'' delegation led by Dr Carlos.
Under the Gillard proposal, irregular immigrants who arrive by boat in Australia would be shunted off to East Timor for processing of their refugee claims before eventual resettlement in third countries.
The lone vocal supporter in East Timor for the refugee centre has been its President, Jose Ramos-Horta, who was tasked initially with leading negotiations on the matter. It appears he has been sidelined by Prime Minister and head of government Xanana Gusmao. A spokesman yesterday said Mr Ramos-Horta ''unfortunately'' cannot attend the summit.
In a fillip for Australia, however, the UNHCR has given qualified support to the idea of offshore processing, as long as nations in the region agreed first to honour international refugee conventions.
''Under certain circumstances, which would need to be further defined, this might involve practical co-operation on issues such as readmission or transfer from the territory of one participating state to that of another,'' the UNHCR paper, delivered to Bali Process officials in November, said.
The paper also sees merit for a dedicated regime to handle asylum seekers who travel by sea given the inherent dangers.
Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison yesterday said the proposal for an East Timor refugee centre was a ''farce''.
''Julia Gillard's promise of a regional processing centre was nothing more than a pre-election talking point and that's all it remains,'' he told the ABC.