The government’s East Timor asylum seeker solution is dying a death of a thousand cuts. It is a slow and painful process and unedifying to watch it writhe in agony. The plan has not yet been killed outright, but only an unreconstructed optimist would now suggest its fate is other than sealed.

The Bali Process ministerial forum has been one of the more damaging cuts to the East Timor solution, even if the decision by East Timor Foreign Minister Zacarias da Costa not to attend was not a snub to Australia, as presented by some. Rather, East Timor has correctly pointed out that it has much more pressing priorities than Australia’s domestic concerns with asylum seekers and its half-baked plan about where to process them.

East Timor’s overwhelming foreign policy concern has been to integrate into regional forums. Da Costa is consequently attending a meeting of the Melanesian Spearhead Group in Fiji. Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao is similarly visiting the ASEAN secretariat in Jakarta.

That East Timor has sent its deputy Foreign Minister, Alberto Carlos, to the Bali Forum indicates that it is at least being polite to Australia. However, Australia’s priorities — overwhelmingly driven by shallow domestic political considerations — are not East Timor’s priorities nor are they the priorities of any other regional state. As Carlos observed yesterday, as a country still attempting to pull itself out of overwhelming poverty, East Timor had much more pressing matters to attend to.

The UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, has said that under certain conditions, a small-scale emergency asylum seeker processing centre or centres could be a viable option. East Timor has similarly done Australia the courtesy of at least considering the proposal, if against a backdrop of widespread local opposition to such a plan.

Conditions that have been outlined to allow such a centre to be established in East Timor have been generous, leaving other countries, in particular Indonesia, concerned that such favourable conditions would act as a “honey-pot” and actually encourage the flow of asylum seekers. Indonesia is therefore highly unlikely to back such a plan, while East Timor will do little more than pay it lip service until after its mid-2012 elections.

But the real problem for Australia’s neighbours with the issue of the Australia government seeking to off-load asylum seekers is that they are aware that it is playing to the irrational fears of a small minority, which is in turn driving its foreign policy. To Australia’s neighbours, unsurprisingly, allowing domestic wedge politics to drive foreign policy makes very little sense.

Meanwhile, Australia’s neighbors are humouring it in its embarrassment, when perhaps they could do everyone a favour by delivering the final cut and putting this flailing policy out of its misery.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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