Subject: East Timor 'not ready' for asylum centre
also East Timor asylum plan a legal minefield
East Timor 'not ready' for asylum centre
By Sara Everingham, Kerri Ritchie and staff
Updated 6 hours 36 minutes ago
East Timor's deputy prime minister says his country does not have the capacity to set up a regional processing centre for asylum seekers.
Earlier today Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced the Government was negotiating with East Timor on setting up a centre to handle new boat arrivals before they arrived in Australia.
She said she had held talks with the United Nations, as well as East Timor president Jose Ramos-Horta and New Zealand prime minister John Key, on setting up the centre and asked for the "patience and support" of the Australian people.
President Jose Ramos-Horta says he has told Ms Gillard there will be no commitments from East Timor until he has spoken with country's prime minister, Xanana Gusmao.
East Timor's deputy prime minister, Jose Luis Guterres, says his government has already sent a message to Australia's embassy in Dili saying East Timor is not ready to establish such a centre.
"On this specific issue I can say to you that East Timor is not prepared, is not ready to establish such a centre in the country," he said.
But he says his government is considering the request and will send an official response to Australia in a few weeks time.
"We have so many issues that we have to deal with and bringing another problem, another issue to the country, I don't think it's wise for any politician to do it," he said.
He says the regional processing centre is being discussed by several ministries in East Timor's government.
East Timor's foreign minister Zacarias da Costa also confirmed his country has been in talks with Australia about how both countries can work together to deal with asylum seekers.
But he says he does not know if the outcome of the discussions will be a processing centre in East Timor or elsewhere.
"We are a new country. Of course our borders are not yet 100 per cent secure. We are still developing our policies and we've been working together with Australia to strengthen our own mechanisms," he said.
"Australia understands very much that it's also in its interest that Timor Leste is safe and secure and has its own mechanisms to deal properly with this situation. This has always been on the table.
"And of course the president has a chance to discuss over the phone with the current prime minister Julia Gillard.
"I was not informed on the details of the discussion, but I believe all the issues of the interests of both countries were briefly touched by president Horta and Prime Minister Julia Gillard."
Today's announcement by Ms Gillard was a surprise to most in East Timor, including the opposition Fretilin party.
Spokesman Jose Teixeira says a processing centre would be a burden for East Timor.
"In principle Fretilin is opposed to any suggestion that Timor should be used as a processing centre for asylum seekers - asylum seekers that are on a destination to Australia and who should properly be processed by Australia," he said.
New Zealand Prime Minister John Key says he is open to the idea of a processing centre in East Timor, but he says his government will not be increasing its refugee quota.
He also says New Zealand will not be sacrificing its security checks on asylum seekers.
"These boats are becoming larger and therefore more capable of coming to New Zealand. The second thing I said to Julia Gillard last night is New Zealand's not interested in increasing the number of refugees that we take under the UNHCR program - which is 750 - nor would we accept a deterioration in the quality of those refugees," Mr Key said.
During her policy announcement Ms Gillard took aim at what she called the Opposition's "rhetoric" and "hollow slogans" on turning asylum seekers back at sea.
She noted that last year Australia received 0.6 per cent of the world's refugees and said the Opposition's insistence on "turning boats back" was a "fairytale" which would result only in the asylum boats being scuttled and their passengers having to be rescued by Australian vessels.
Ms Gillard promised to "wreck the people-smuggling trade by removing the incentive for the boats to leave the port of origin in the first place".
"The purpose [of the new centre] would be to ensure that people smugglers have no product to sell," she said.
"A boat ride to Australia would just be a ticket back to the regional processing centre... to ensure that everyone is subject to a consistent, fair assessment process.
"I told the UN High Commissioner that my Government is not interested in pursuing a new Pacific Solution. Instead, Australia is committed to the development of a sustainable effective regional protection framework.
"I want to reassure Australians this is not about a quick fix, there is no quick fix. Only this sort of long-term approach will deliver what we need."
Earlier Mr Abbott promised to give the Immigration Minister the final say on refugee status decisions.
The new Coalition policy presumes that an asylum seeker who deliberately destroys their identity documents is not a refugee, and makes it tougher for asylum seekers who arrive by boat to be resettled in Australia.
A Coalition government would also scrap the current Government's merit review panel and give asylum seekers the same legal rights in Australia they have in Indonesia.
The Opposition also plans to boost the Immigration Minister's powers to challenge the granting of visas in individual cases.
Mr Abbott said a democratically elected minister should play a greater role in determining who is granted refugee status.
The Coalition would also increase the number of places for asylum seekers who apply from offshore and it has proposed a scheme for community groups to privately sponsor refugees.
Ms Gillard also said the Government was lifting the suspension on processing claims for Sri Lankans after the release of a new UN report overnight, clearing the way for all Sri Lankan asylum claims to be processed as far as possible.
Dr Sam Pari from the Australian Tamil Congress has welcomed Ms Gillard's announcement, as well as the warning that people who are not genuine refugees will be sent back.
"We've always been fine with that. People who deserve protection should be given refugee status, however those posing to be refugees who are not refugees should be sent back," Dr Pari said.
But the Sri Lankan asylum seekers who were involved in a six-month stand-off at the Indonesian Port of Merak late last year say they do not know if the Australian Government's new policy applies to them.
The ethnic Tamils are still being detained at the Tanjung Pinang detention centre in Indonesia, months after their boat was seized by Indonesian authorities in response to former prime minister Kevin Rudd's phone call to Indonesia's president.
A spokesman for the Tamils, who did not want to be named, says they are unsure if that applies to them because they are being held in Indonesia.
He says they have no idea when their claims for asylum will be heard by the United Nations Human Rights Commission.
The Immigration Department said 1,050 people were currently affected by the visa freeze on Afghan and Sri Lankan asylum seekers. Of those, 866 were Afghans and 184 were Sri Lankans.
A department spokesman said 2,571 "irregular maritime arrivals" were in detention on Christmas Island and 1,695 on the mainland.
East Timor asylum plan a legal minefield
* Stephen Fitzpatrick, Jakarta correspondent, and Paul Cleary
* July 07, 201012:00AM
EAST Timor MP Jose Teixeira was thoroughly perplexed yesterday by Julia Gillard's announcement of plans for an asylum-seeker processing centre.
"It would be a legal minefield, to say the least, with the amendments that would be required to the Immigration Act to make it happen," said Mr Teixeira, who was resources and energy minister in the former Fretilin government and now sits on the parliamentary foreign affairs committee.
"Fretilin disagrees with Timor Leste being set up as a processing centre for asylum-seekers bound for Australia," he said. "It is unfair to burden emerging countries like ours with such an issue.
"We take our international commitments seriously, and believe to go down this path would not be a good way to comply with our international obligations and our constitutional guarantees for those seeking asylum."
His scepticism was shared by many, including some in Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao's own coalition administration.
One government source, who asked not to be named, said Ms Gillard's announcement came as a complete shock.
"To be blindsided like this? No, it wasn't on," the source said. "Nobody was happy."
East Timorese President Jose Ramos-Horta last night confirmed he had given his in-principle support to Ms Gillard but admitted to the ABC's Lateline program that he was yet to speak to Mr Gusmao about the plan. "We will discuss, but we need to hear some more specific details," he said. "If our Prime Minister agrees with the concept of the idea, then let's have our technical people meet to work out some details."
But a senior source said the announcement by Ms Gillard "should have been done with more respect.
"It was done with a complete disregard for domestic politics."
Mr Teixeira said the young country's constitution had deliberately put an emphasis on the plight of the displaced, given East Timor's experience with exactly that issue, and would not easily accommodate the sort of measure being proposed by Ms Gillard. Other Timor analysts agreed the plan was unlikely to go through, with some pointing out that Mr Ramos-Horta did not even have the authority to agree to such a deal. "(Mr Ramos-Horta) is the President, and as such he's not a member of the government," one said. "The President can't make deals, he can't make policy, he can't make laws. The government controls policy and it controls bilateral relationship issues."
An outraged opposition politician was heard to say shortly after Ms Gillard's statement: "So they don't want the LNG (liquefied natural gas) to be processed here, but they do want us to process asylum-seekers," referring to the ongoing disputes over access to East Timor's undersea wealth.
Mr Ramos-Horta told the ABC's Lateline program last night that many details of the proposal still needed to be ironed out.
He said he supported the reigonal response proposed by Julia Gillard, however he said he would like to see asylum seekers have freedom while awaiting processing.
"All we would need if we agree is . . . financial assistance to manage the centre, to feed the people, to provide them while they are here with medical care, with clothing, with proper shelter and maybe with a temporary job while they are waiting so they don't sit idle in the center as prisoners," he told Lateline.
"I wouldn't want this place to become an island prison for these persons ... If they are here they would have a certain freedom."
East Timor has no facility capable of housing hundreds, let alone thousands, of the Afghan, Iraqi, Iranian, Sri Lankan and other asylum-seekers making their way via Malaysia, through Indonesia and on to Australia, usually via either Ashmore Reef or Christmas Island.
Such facilities would need to be built from scratch and would far overshadow the living conditions of most ordinary East Timorese.
Deputy Prime Minister for Social Affairs Jose Luis Guterres said the proposal was "not an easy matter" for the young country and would need to be examined by foreign affairs and national security ministries.
Additional reporting: Paul Maley, Lanai Vasek