Australia : East Timor Could Process Asylum Seekers

Australia: East Timor could process asylum seekers

July 5, 2010

SYDNEY—Australia's new leader launched a plan Tuesday to make East Timor a hub for processing asylum seekers fleeing war and persecution across Asia while a debate rages in her country over illegal migration.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard said the proposal was a regional response to the global problem of burgeoning numbers of people leaving their home countries because of conflicts such as those in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and elsewhere.

The new policy also aims to defuse a politically and racially charged debate about illegal migration in Australia that has flared ahead of elections expected in the next few months.

Australia has witnessed a surge in the number of asylum seekers arriving via Indonesia in rickety boats some 150 in the past three years carrying around 4,000 people who have paid criminal syndicates for their passage.

The asylum seekers have overflowed the offshore detention center at Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean, and in recent months detainees have been moved to the mainland for holding while their refugee applications are assessed.

While the number of people arriving this way represents a small proportion of the nearly 14,000 places Australia grants each year to asylum seekers, each new boat receives wide media coverage and stirs feelings among many Australians that the country is being forced to take them in.

In her first major speech touching on foreign policy, Gillard on Tuesday said Australia had an obligation to treat legitimate asylum seekers fairly while also ensuring its borders are secure.

She proposed the creation of a regional center for processing the claims of “irregular entrants” to U.N. refugee status, and said that East Timorese President Jose Ramos Horta had agreed to discuss the possibility of building such a facility in his country.

“A regional processing removes the incentive, once and for all, for the people smugglers to send boats to Australia,” Gillard said. “Why risk a dangerous journey if you will simply be returned to the regional processing center?”

Gillard said she had proposed the idea to U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, though she did not say what his response was. She offered no other details, but said she would pursue the idea in further discussions.

Illegal immigration has already become a key campaign fight in Australia's elections. The leader of the main conservative opposition party, Tony Abbot, also launched a policy on Tuesday with a promise to introduce increasingly strict measures to curb the number of boats carrying asylum seekers to Australia.