FOREIGN AFFAIRS: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Timorese leaders reject Gillard's asylum scheme
, August 7, 2010
Leaders of East Timor and of the East Timorese community in Australia have rejected Prime Minister Julia Gillard's planned asylum-processing centre in East Timor. The plan emerged from informal discussions between Ms Gillard and East Timor's President, José Ramos Horta, during his recent visit to Australia.
Deputy Prime Minister of East Timor, Mario Carrascalao, told Paul Toohey, of Melbourne's Herald Sun
, that there was no chance that a processing centre for asylum-seekers would be built in his country.
He said: "It's not going to happen. A resolution against the processing centre was passed by the Parliament, and it was supported by all parties in the current Government. There is not a single minister in favour of that proposal." (Herald Sun
, July 23, 2010)
At the time of making his statement, Carrascalao was acting Foreign Minister of East Timor.
He contradicted statements by Julia Gillard that she was actively continuing to pursue the proposed facility by discussions with the East Timorese Government. He said, "If it's true, they [the Australian Government] should tell us with whom they're negotiating. If they're talking to someone, it's not at the senior level of government."
He could also have mentioned that the proposal was also opposed by the main opposition party, Fretilin. The vote against the plan in the East Timorese Parliament last month was unanimous.
In a further development, Lidia Soares, convenor of the Timorese Australian Community of Victoria, has called on the Gillard Government to respect the views of the Parliament of Timor Leste (East Timor), which voted unanimously to reject the Prime Minister's plan to establish a regional processing facility in East Timor for asylum-seekers.
Claiming that Canberra is still negotiating the issue with East Timor's Government is plain wrong and could potentially damage Australia's reputation in East Timor, she said.
"Prime Minister Gillard's ongoing misrepresentation of the issue is seen as a form of colonialism by the people of East Timor, who have fought long and hard for their independence, and for the establishment of parliamentary democracy," she said.
"I have spoken to the Speaker of the Parliament, Fernando de Araujo, who reaffirmed to me the Parliament's position that East Timor is not ready to host a refugee processing centre at the moment.
"I know from my own discussions with people in East Timor that, even though they are sympathetic towards the cause of the boat people (a stark reminder of East Timorese refugees being taken to Puckupunyal in 1999), they are opposed to this plan because the volatile situation in East Timor is not favourable to hosting a refugee processing facility.
"Furthermore, some East Timorese people are still living as refugees in West Timor, and the problem of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in East Timor has not yet been solved. This is too much to ask for a small country barely on its feet to carry the burden of its wealthy neighbour."
The Parliament of Timor Leste unanimously voted to "firmly reject any plan to set up a refugee detention centre in Timor Leste".
It added: "We urge the government to reject any proposal which conveys an intention to build a refugee processing centre in our national territory.
"We hope that the government handles this matter as a political issue and takes a firm stance in dealing with our international colleagues, including with the Australian Government."
Ms Soares says that Prime Minister Gillard's claim that she is still negotiating with the Government of Dili over a regional asylum-processing centre is wrong and is viewed by many East Timorese as colonial bullying tactics.
Early in July, the Australian Foreign Minister, Stephen Smith, visited Indonesia in an attempt to enlist Indonesian support for the facility in East Timor, but did not visit East Timor itself.
Significantly, the Indonesian Government refused to commit itself to the proposal.
The most that Mr Smith was able to get from his hosts was a lukewarm commitment to look at the idea. Indonesia's Foreign Minister, Marty Natalegawa, said, "I can understand the rationale and in the days and weeks to come, when we delve into it, I am sure will have more of an appreciation of what it's all about."
This appears to be diplomatic language to say that Indonesia doesn't understand why Australia would expect a poor country like East Timor to address a problem which Australia is unable or unwilling to solve.
Australia's announcement that it would locate an asylum-seeker processing facility in East Timor, without discussions with the East Timorese Government, has damaged Australia's relations with East Timor.
Its persistence with the plan in the face of opposition from the Timorese Parliament will aggravate the damage.