Australia's Julia Gillard struggles to sell asylum center plan to neighbors

Illegal immigration has long been a political hot potato in Australia, which has a lot of foreign-born residents and an economy that is increasingly integrated with Asia. Australia's neighbors aren't biting on Julia Gillard's asylum center plan.

Asylum seekers from Sri Lanka were rescued last month by Indonesian authorities after their ship broke down in Indonesian waters. Indonesia is a major transit point for asylum seekers seeking refuge in Australia.

Faced with a backlash at home over "boat people" seeking asylum, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard has tried to drum up support in Southeast Asia for a regional processing center for refugees.

But Ms. Gillard, who heads a coalition government, appears to be swimming against the tide. Neither Malaysia nor Indonesia, which are key transit points for refugees trying to reach Australia by sea, have committed to the plan. Gillard visited both countries this week after attending a regional summit in Vietnam, where she also raised the issue in bilateral meetings.

Illegal migration has long been a political hot potato in Australia, which has a large number of foreign-born residents and an economy that is increasingly integrated with Asia, but remains uneasy over mass migration. Australians argue that their generosity in accepting genuine refugees is being exploited by people smugglers, who profit from the seaborne trade of migrants via transit countries.

Australia’s opposition has called Gillard’s diplomatic efforts to sell her plan as a “charade” and complained that interdiction efforts were failing to stop refugees. Two boats were detained on Tuesday near Christmas Island, an Australian territory, with a total of 142 passengers seeking asylum aboard, according to press reports. Over 100 vessels carrying migrants have reached Australian waters so far this year.

Pacific solution to surge of migrants

Gillard earlier proposed East Timor, which shares a border with Indonesia, as host of the new processing center. The proposal echoes Australia’s "Pacific Solution" to a surge of boat people, who were warehoused in Nauru and Papua New Guinea. Gillard’s predecessor, Kevin Rudd, reversed this policy.

But East Timorese remain wary of the idea, which has yet to be fleshed out and could pose a security threat if illegal migrants escape, says Jose Meirelles a spokesman for President José Ramos-Horta.

“It has not been explained to us. We still don’t know the dimensions of this center, how long it would be open, and how many people it would receive,” says Mr. Meirelles. He said impoverished East Timor wouldn’t be willing to contribute “a single cent” toward any processing center.

Speaking Monday in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur, Gillard said that the two countries had agreed that individual efforts to stop people smugglers ran the risk of displacing the problem. “Regional approaches are necessary to what is a regional problem,” she said.

Teuku Faizasyah, a spokesman for Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry, said Australia hadn’t specified where the processing center would be. But he said Indonesia was willing to discuss the idea further and was committed to finding a solution.

“It’s not a question of the location [of refugee processing]…. There has to be a clear idea of how to deal with this issue comprehensively,” he says.

People smugglers around the world

Australia isn’t the only country in the smugglers’ crosshairs. A boat carrying nearly 500 Tamils docked in Vancouver in August. It was the second such vessel to reach Canada in the past year and has spurred the passage of new laws to levy tougher penalties on the masterminds. The asylum seekers, who reportedly paid tens of thousands of dollars apiece, are being detained for processing.

Tamils from Sri Lanka are among those who attempt the dangerous journey to Australia, often flying to Malaysia, which has a large ethnic-Tamil population, and traveling by boat to Indonesia, which is the nearest land to Australia. Other refugee nationalities include Afghans, Iraqis, and Burmese.

Australian rights activists argue that a policy of detaining refugees on remote islands is inhumane and contrary to international humanitarian law. The United Nations’ refugee agency has also criticized the practice, citing the hardship faced by those left in limbo on Christmas Island.

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