East Timor In No Rush To Endorse Refugee Centre

East Timor in no rush to endorse refugee centre

The Australian, October 15, 2010

East Timor's Foreign Minister Zacarias da Costa has warned a refugee processing centre in Timor could take 'a bit longer' than Australia wants.

But speaking on the final day of Immigration Minister Chris Bowen's whistlestop tour of the region to drum up support for the refugee centre idea, Mr da Costa said Dili remained genuinely open to the concept, provided it enjoyed support across the region.

'I think the issue could take a little bit longer than the Australian government (may) possibly want,' Mr da Costa told The Australian.

His remarks came as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees' regional representative Rick Towle said his organisation had had 'general' discussions about the proposal, which was announced by Julia Gillard in the lead-up to the federal election.

'There have been some general discussions about what might be the elements of good regional co-operation,' Mr Towle told The Australian.

Some sort of involvement by the UNHCR has emerged as common ground among all the countries involved in discussions about the processing centre.

In Dili and Jakarta for talks this week, Mr Bowen said any centre established by Australia would be run in accordance with UNHCR principles.

Mr Towle said the UNHCR supported the basic idea of enhanced regional co-operation, but said it would be premature to discuss the Gillard government's Timor proposal specifically.

'We are interested in discussing how to strengthen refugee protection in Southeast Asia,' Mr Towle said.

'A variety of options are under discussion, but what's key is that there are comprehensive arrangements with all states affected by people movement.'

On Monday, Mr Bowen said one of those options involved a number of processing centres in countries outside East Timor.

Yesterday, Mr Bowen met Malaysia's Home Affairs Minister Seri Hishammuddin bin Tun Hussein in what was the final leg of his tour through the region.

His visit followed a pre-election commitment by the Prime Minister to establish an offshore processing centre in Timor that would house Australia-bound asylum-seekers, who would be eligible for resettlement in partner countries.

The minister met East Timorese President Jose Ramos-Horta and Indonesia's Foreign Minister, Marty Natalegawa, in Dili and Jakarta earlier this week.

Mr Bowen and Mr Ramos-Horta agree that any refugee processing centre established in East Timor would be an open facility, as opposed to a detention centre.

Mr Bowen also agreed to limit the length of time spent at the facility to three years.

Yesterday, opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison leapt on the concession.

'It was naive to give that commitment because the only way to underwrite that commitment is to guarantee residency in Australia,' Mr Morrison said.

'They haven't thought this through. The more they touch, the worse things get.'

Mr Bowen returns to Australia with a commitment from East Timor to work up a detailed model on how the centre might operate.

That model will then be discussed during the Bali Process, a regional gathering aimed at combating people-smuggling, to be held in January or February.