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Federal

Mar 30, 2011

East Timor solution dying the death of a thousand cuts

East Timor asylum seeker solution has not yet been killed outright, but only an unreconstructed optimist would now suggest its fate is other than sealed.

Professor Damien Kingsbury

Crikey international affairs commentator

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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6 comments

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6 thoughts on “East Timor solution dying the death of a thousand cuts

  1. Mark from Melbourne

    I wholly agree that a lot of the rationale behind this idea was to try and mitigate the fear and loathing “in the west” but I think it behooves us to actually objectively debate this option along with all others.

    Sure East Timor doesn’t want to house it but the potential outcomes behind a regional centre aren’t without some positives. And if you think it is entirely without merit – where are your suggestions because at the end of the day we do have a problem no matter which side of the fence you sit in the arguments. Personally I am confused as on one hand,
    1. I agree that it isnt that many people (and more people come by air),
    2. but I also think that whether they come by sea or by air they should get in the “queue” – and if there isn’t a functioning queue then fix it.
    3. I also think if we do open up the doors it will attract many more people so the problem will not go away and we will still be stuck with the red necks trying to run the country.
    4. I hear what a dreadful life that most of these people are fleeing but why should they get any priority just because they afford the people smugglers fee or the plane fare?
    5. there is considerable merit in a regional approach which takes it out of the hands of any one country to solve/decide. It seems that we are not the only ones stuck on this particular horn of dilemma.
    6. I dont see that there is a fair outcome going as all options I’ve heard disadvantage someone.

    In other words, like all complex issues, there are at least granules of truth and/or lies in all positions. And there is probably no solution which is going to make everyone happy.

    I have yet to hear one that is practical and fair so we need to support any one gutsy enough to put out an option on the table by giving it a fiar and reasonable hearing.

    Long winded but there you go…..

  2. Mark from Melbourne

    Sorry, not only long winded but very poor check-subbing. On re-reading, I should make it clear that I do not mean to demean the refugees by using “they” all the time.

    And on point 4, in case it isn’t obvious I am saying why should any refugee get better access just because they have money to pay the fare over someone who doesn’t.

  3. shepherdmarilyn

    Well if our lazy media had ever bothered to read the letter the dingbat ranga got from HRW on 8 August last year pointing out the whole thing was illegal we would not be having this bait and switch bullshit right now.

    In fact the so-called Bali process is and always has been a hoax, the majority of the “heads of state” are the very same people who create most of the world’s refugees in the first place – we are simply trying to bully them into preventing people from seeking asylum.

    That has been available on the senate website for a year, no-one bothers to report it.

    And stop calling it a frigging “solution”, there is no problem requiring any solution.

    It’s bad enough that the pollies want to break the law over and over and deliberately create conditions so dreadful people are killing themselves, it is even worse that our media are so pathetically ignorant.

  4. shepherdmarilyn

    http://www.hrw.org/node/92320

    The broad proposal by some parties to “stop the boats” and forcibly transfer asylum seekers who reach Australia to an offshore regional processing center undermines Australia’s obligations under international law. From the information currently available, offshore processing in Timor-Leste or Nauru would effectively amount to a repeat of the expensive, highly criticized, and ultimately ineffectual “Pacific Solution” of the Howard era. It should be rejected as a violation of both the letter and the spirit of the Refugee Convention, and because the last attempt at a Pacific Solution caused considerable and unnecessary hardship to individuals and families.

    Forcible removal to an offshore processing site is highly questionable under international law. First, Timor-Leste and Nauru do not have functioning asylum processing systems and cannot guarantee refugees’ effective protection. Second, the Australian-bound asylum seekers did not first pass through Timor-Leste or Nauru en route to Australia and have no other ties to those countries. Third, the transfers would be involuntary. While some governments have at times legitimately returned asylum seekers to countries of first asylum that have comparable asylum standards and procedures and through which the asylum seekers first passed en route to their final destination, this is not the case with either the ALP or Coalition proposals. Australia has little basis under international law for forcibly sending them to such third countries.

    And Amnesty, the UNHCR, the UN human rights council and every other man and his dog have said the same thing but the dingbatted ranga ignores them all just like her hero Ruddock did.

  5. Mick S

    Why oh why do we persist with “off-shore processing”?
    Originally, this was designed to prevent asylum seekers from being able to access the Australian legal system.
    This curious anomaly has now been overturned by the High Court.
    During the only really big “boat people” episode (post Vietnam War), assylum seekers were not even in detention.
    Off shore processing and mandatory detention represents a massive expense to the Australian people for little return.
    The economics are as tragic as the humanitarian issues.

  6. shepherdmarilyn

    And calling part of Australia “offshore” just because it is an island is so ridiculous.

    But our dimwitted media are as bad as anyone.

    They carry on as if we are canning peas instead of having refugees file a claim for a visa.

    It’s amazing how people who fly here don’t have to be jailed to file the exact same application.

    There has been regional offshore prcessing since 1954, it’s called the refugee convention ratified now by 147 nations.

    Pity the dingbats have forgotten it.