Australia will establish a revised “Pacific Solution”, with Prime Minister Julia Gillard flagging a “regional processing centre” for asylum seekers to be based in East Timor, to where asylum seekers who arrive by boat would be redirected as part of a “regional protection framework”.

In an address to the Lowy Institute this morning, the Prime Minister moved to establish a tougher line on asylum seekers by announcing her intention to pursue an East Timor processing facility with President Jose Ramos-Horta, the New Zealand government and the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees.

She also flagged that improved conditions in Sri Lanka now meant Tamil asylum seekers were likely to be sent home, and that negotiations were proceeding with the Afghan government on the repatriation of failed Afghan asylum seekers. Gillard also indicated unspecified measures to strengthen penalties for people smugglers whose actions lead to death, and committed to ensuring that successful asylum seekers would receive no “special treatment”.

Gillard explicitly denied that the proposed East Timor facility would be “a new Pacific Solution”, instead insisting it would be a “sustainable, effective regional protection framework”, but the difference with the Howard government’s approach of spending large sums of taxpayer money to send asylum seekers to locations such as Nauru for processing is unclear, beyond the promised involvement of the UNHCR.

The Prime Minister indicated that, in light of the UNHCR’s overnight report indicating a significantly improved security and legal situation in Sri Lanka, most Tamil asylum seekers faced being put on a plane back to their homeland if they attempted to reach Australia, although acknowledging that case-by-case determinations would remain. The present suspension of claims by Sri Lankan asylum seekers, put in place by Kevin Rudd just under three months ago, would be lifted.

The present suspension of processing of claims for Afghan asylum seekers would remain in place, but Gillard appeared to suggest this awaited the resolution of repatriation arrangements with the Afghan government. She emphasised that nearly three-quarters of Afghan asylum applicants had been refused in recent months.

Gillard also sought to address the persistent community myth that refugees are given extensive and special taxpayer assistance. “When newcomers settle in our community, they accept their responsibilities as members of the community — to learn English, enter the workforce, and send their kids to school like everyone else.  Most refugees fulfil these obligations and are grateful to be able to make a new home in Australia … But the rules are the rules. We will ensure refugees shoulder the same obligations as Australians generally.”

What action this would entail remains unclear.

Earlier today, the opposition sought to further toughen its own stance on asylum seekers by indicating those who “deliberately destroyed” identity documentation would be denied asylum, an approach that appears unworkable given Australia’s international commitments and the practicalities of establishing “deliberate destruction” in the context of escape from brutal regimes and people smuggling.

The opposition also proposed to move the Minister for Immigration back into asylum claims processing, suggesting the minister be given the right to intervene in any asylum claim.  The Secretary of the Department of Immigration would also be required to sign off on all asylum claim determinations, rather than lower level officials, although the power could be delegated.

Peter Fray

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