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.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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“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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