Region set to shoot down 'bungled' Timor solution

A group of Sri Lankan asylum-seekers without visas leaves Christmas Island bound for Queensland yesterday. Picture: Colin MurtySource: The Australian

EAST Timor's Foreign Minister Zacarias da Costa says Australia has failed to sell its proposal for a refugee processing centre to a sceptical region, and predicts the idea will be shot down at a major people-smuggling conference to be held in Bali next week.

With Julia Gillard's proposal due to be debated by regional foreign ministers at the Bali Process on Wednesday, Mr da Costa said Canberra's poor sales job meant it had now become "very difficult" for the idea to proceed.

The comments came as the first asylum-seekers to take advantage of last year's High Court ruling extending judicial review to boatpeople began appearing in the courts, a development the government has warned will extend detention times and add to tensions inside the centres.

As authorities scrambled to alleviate overcrowding on Christmas Island, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen confirmed that eight failed asylum-seekers had sought to have their cases reviewed in the Federal Magistrates Court, the first in an expected rush of legal challenges expected as a result of last year's High Court decision.

A spokesman for the minister declined to provide details of the case, citing privacy concerns.

Yesterday, a team of Australian Federal Police officers flew to Christmas Island to begin investigating the riots that convulsed the centre last week.

The AFP confirmed that all of the escaped detainees had been accounted for, ending days of confusion during which authorities incorrectly claimed all had been recaptured.

Detective Superintendent Chris Lines also told reporters on the island yesterday that a detailed head count just completed by the centre's contracted private operator Serco tallied with expected numbers. "We are confident now that those people that should be in the centre are in the centre," he said.

The AFP has taken charge of the North West Point detention centre, used to house single men.

On Tuesday, the Immigration Department said that for the time being any intercepted asylum boats would not be taken to Christmas Island as authorities sought to soothe tensions.

Speaking to The Australian, Mr da Costa suggested Ms Gillard's proposal, announced before the federal election, was likely to be shot down by regional leaders in Bali next week. "It seems that Australia has not been able to convince the countries in the region," Mr da Costa said yesterday.

"Without convincing the region of the benefits . . . (of the) centre . . . it's very difficult for the idea to move forward."

Mr da Costa, who is not part of the official Timorese delegation tasked with considering the idea, is the latest in a chorus of voices critical of the processing centre."I believe that some of the countries . . . have not yet been convinced that this would bring benefits to the whole region," he said.

His remarks drew a muted response from Mr Bowen, who moved yesterday to strike a distinction between the Prime Minister's Timor proposal, which is widely expected to fail, and the broader issue of greater regional co-operation in managing refugee flows.

"As we have said previously, the Bali meeting is not specifically about an East Timor processing centre, but about seeking a regional consensus on tackling people-smuggling," a spokesman for Mr Bowen told The Australian.

But opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison said the time had come for the government to formally abandon its pursuit of a refugee centre in Timor.

"(Ms Gillard) has steadfastly refused to take the polite hints from all the leaders in the region," Mr Morrison said. "She should simply end this farce and pick up the phone to Nauru."

Additional reporting: AAP


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