Australia plan to divert asylum seekers gets cool reception

Australia's new leader Julia Gillard met resistance to her first major policy initiative: diverting asylum seekers to East Timor. The tiny country's prime minister says he was not consulted by Ms. Gillard.

By , Correspondent

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    Activists from the "Refugee Action Coalition" listen to speeches during a rally in Sydney in support of refugees on July 9. Australia's new prime minister Julia Gillard talked up her plan for a regional refugee center to tackle people smuggling Friday, but backed away from suggestions it should be built in East Timor.
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An Australian proposal to divert asylum seekers who arrive by sea to neighboring East Timor for processing has run into resistance and cut short a political honeymoon for Australia’s new leader.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced Tuesday that she would establish a regional hub for processing refugees and other immigrants on East Timor, an impoverished half-island nation. Refugees from Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, and other troubled countries regularly try to reach Australia by boat so they can claim political asylum.

The proposal was the first major policy initiative from Ms. Gillard, who replaced Kevin Rudd two weeks ago as leader of the governing Labor Party.

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But Timorese politicians have pushed back against the idea. Some have argued that their territory isn’t suitable for such a facility and asked why Gillard raised it with President Jose Ramos-Horta, not the country’s prime minister. A spokesman for Mr. Ramos-Horta said no formal proposal had been submitted and that the government was still in the dark on the details.

Cool response from neighbors

Compounding the confusion, Indonesia said it hadn’t been informed in advance of Gillard’s announcement. Most asylum seekers use Indonesia as a transit country to try to reach Australia by boat and the two countries have been working together to deter new arrivals, catch people traffickers who profit from the trade and find a solution for refugees who get stuck in Indonesia.

In her speech at a think tank in Sydney, Gillard described her proposal as a regional response to a “global challenge.”

The cool reception from Australia’s neighbors has stirred domestic criticism of Gillard’s leadership and renewed a bitter political debate over immigration. The government is expected to call elections later this year and Gillard is trying to consolidate her power within the ruling party, which is reportedly divided on the issue.

Gillard said Friday that an offshore refugee center might be set up in another country and denied that she had jumped the gun by naming East Timor.

"Those critics who want to declare the approach dead in week one are mistaken and will, I'm afraid, be disappointed," she said, according to Agence France Presse.

A step backward?

Processing claimants in a third country would be a reprisal of the "Pacific Solution" adopted by Australia in 2001 in response to alarm over boat people. Under the policy, asylum seekers were sent to camps on Nauru and Papua New Guinea. Mr. Rudd closed these camps and began processing refugees who arrive by sea on Christmas Island, an Australian territory.

To critics, the latest proposal is a step backward. David Manne, executive director of the Refugee & Immigration Legal Center in Melbourne, says Australia is overreacting and turning its back on its humanitarian obligations. The number of new arrivals by boat over the last three years is around 6,000, a fraction of worldwide refugee numbers.

“What Australia experiences is a miniscule experience of a global reality, which is that people around the world are forced to flee from brutality and seek sanctuary for protection,” he says.

'No plan has been presented'

Australia is an immigrant-based society with a high number of foreign-born in its population of 22 million. Government officials point out that it regularly accepts claimants referred by the UN refugee agency from third countries and that boatpeople are effectively jumping the line. Most pay substantial fees to trafficking syndicates who typically fly them to Malaysia or Indonesia and then pack them onto rickety boats for the perilous sea journey to Australia.

East Timor isn’t on this route. It has close security ties to Australia, a major aid donor that has also deployed peacekeepers. But Gillard’s proposal for a refugee facility has been criticized by some Timorese legislators. Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao told reporters that he was “open for discussion” on the issue but hadn’t spoken to Gillard.

Jose Mereilles, a spokesman for Ramos-Horta, said Gillard had called the president of East Timor on Monday to sound him out on the idea but hadn’t sought his consent. Regardless, Ramos-Horta couldn’t have agreed to accept Australia-bound refugees on behalf of the government, as he doesn’t have the authority, which lies with Mr. Gusmao. Instead, he said, the president – a Nobel peace laureate – had expressed his “humanitarian point of view” on refugee policy.

“No plan has been presented. Nothing. It was just a consultation. We’re still waiting for developments,” Mr. Mereilles says.

UN declines to comment

Gillard said Tuesday that she had already spoken to the UN’s refugee agency, which later issued a statement saying it was ready to discuss “cooperative approaches to refugee protection” with Australia but couldn’t comment on the proposal.

Mr. Manne said the diplomatic fallout could make it harder to build consensus with Australia’s neighbors on a common response to the plight of the boatpeople, who are unlikely to give up their goal.

“One of the other real concerns here is that the important aim of developing a regional cooperation framework could be complicated by starting it in this way,” he says.

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