Asylum surge picks up the pace
From: The Australian
October 09, 2010 12:00AM
TWO asylum boats, one towing the other, have been stopped north of Christmas Island in a hectic 24 hours for border protection.
In a sign that smuggling activity is beginning to pick up in the wake of the decision last week to lift the freeze of new Afghan asylum claims, authorities intercepted three boats carrying a total of 135 people.
Yesterday's boats were carrying 74 passengers and three crew. The third boat, intercepted Thursday, held 56 passengers and two crew. The boats bring this year's number of asylum-seeker vessels to 103.
It was not clear why yesterday's boats were lashed together, although a spokeswoman for Home Affairs Minister Brendan O'Connor said passengers were all crowded on to the one boat when intercepted.
Their arrival came as Immigration Minister Chris Bowen played down expectations the government was poised to deliver on one of its key election promises, a processing centre for refugees in East Timor, saying the plan “will not come to fruition overnight”.
Mr Bowen announced yesterday he would travel on Monday to East Timor, then to Indonesia and Kuala Lumpur, to begin discussions about opening a refugee processing centre in East Timor.
Mr Bowen warned he would “not return from the region next week with a final agreement”.
“But it is an idea that is worth every effort to bring to fruition,” he added. In East Timor, Mr Bowen will meet President Jose Ramos Horta, a supporter of the plan, as well as senior Timorese officials.
The minister will not meet East Timor's Prime Minister, Xanana Gusmao, Dili's most powerful politician.
A spokesman for Mr Bowen, when asked if a meeting with Mr Gusmao had been sought, said the East Timorese government had consistently advised that Mr Ramos Horta had “primary carriage” of issues involving asylum-seekers.
The idea for a processing centre to house Australia-bound asylum-seekers, before farming them out to partner countries across the region, was floated by Julia Gillard in July.
The Prime Minister ruffled feathers in Dili by pursuing initial discussions with Mr Ramos Horta, whose position in East Timor's complex political system is largely ceremonial.
East Timor's main opposition parties vehemently opposed the idea and Mr Gusmao has so far reserved judgment.
East Timor has also moved to incorporate the issue into the Bali Process, a multilateral forum aimed at combating people-smuggling.
Likening the government's proposed processing centre to the response undertaken by the region to the Vietnamese boatpeople crisis of the late 1970s and 80s, Mr Bowen said a centre in East Timor could serve as a bulwark against future asylum-seeker waves, “which, as history teaches us, will inevitably accompany a humanitarian crisis sometime in the future”.
Related Coverage :
East Timor 'interested' in centre Herald Sun, 4 hours ago
No quick solution on Timor centre: Bowen The Australian, 2 days ago
Bowen faces toughest test Courier Mail, 24 Sep 2010
Dili adds demands to talks on refugees The Australian, 23 Sep 2010
Timor storm over proposed centre Herald Sun, 13 Sep 2010