Australia Shrugs off Timor Refugee Snub

Park Sae-jin Reporter Posted : 2010-07-13 17:17 Updated : 2010-07-13 17:17
글씨작게 글씨크게

Activists from a refugee solidarity campaign group are seen during a rally in Sydney. 
Australia Tuesday pledged to plough on with plans for a regional asylum-seeker centre despite a rejection by East Timor's parliament, 
the country most likely to host the centre.[AFP]

Australia said Tuesday it remained in talks with East Timor over a regional asylum-seeker centre, despite a rejection by the country's parliament which dealt the pre-election policy a severe blow.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard said Timor's government was still discussing processing Australia's poor Asian migrants -- a major plank of her election strategy which has become mired in difficulty.

Australia's first woman leader, who is expected to announce polls within days after ousting the once hugely popular Kevin Rudd last month, was speaking after 34 of Timor's 66 lawmakers voted against the plan.

"This was a vote on a resolution in the East Timorese parliament at a time when the parliament was not well attended," she told reporters in Canberra.

"We, of course, are dealing with the East Timorese government. We have officials in East Timor, they were involved in discussions with East Timor yesterday. Those discussions will continue.

"Our focus is on discussions with the East Timor government, and the East Timor government continues to confirm to us that it is open to the dialogue about the regional processing centre, and we're in that dialogue now."

Foreign Minister Stephen Smith is also holding talks on the proposal this week in Indonesia, a major transit point, following criticism that Gillard did not consult widely enough before making her announcement.

The prime minister was forced to backtrack last week when she said Timor was only one possible location for the centre, despite earlier indicating it would be built there.

The controversy has taken some gloss off the straight-talking, Welsh-born lawyer's image, which had gleamed after she settled a damaging mining tax row just days into her premiership.

"The East Timor solution is totally and utterly sunk," said opposition leader Tony Abbott.

Australia's ruling Labor Party and opposition have both unveiled tough policies on asylum-seekers, with Greens party chief Bob Brown saying the debate reminded him of 1990s anti-immigration firebrand Pauline Hanson.

Gillard's "Timor Solution" has won favour with about two-thirds of voters, although a similar number also believes the policy was badly thought-out, according to a poll of voters released this week.

The prime minister is also expected to announce a new strategy on climate change this week before calling elections.

Australia currently processes asylum-seekers at Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean, but a steady flow of refugees has overwhelmed facilities and forced the reopening of centres on the mainland.

The arrival of asylum-seekers, mainly from war-torn Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, proved a thorn in Rudd's side after he scrapped the harsh mandatory detention policy of his conservative predecessor, John Howard.

Some 2,982 asylum-seekers were intercepted this year until May 19, official figures show, putting 2010 on course to beat the 2001 record of 5,516 arrivals.

But Gillard has said the asylum-seekers are only a tiny fraction -- 0.6 percent -- of the world's total, and make up just eight percent of Australia's overall migrant intake.

East Timor, a mainly Catholic country of just over a million people, remains aid-dependent more than 10 years after its bloody vote to split from Indonesia. Australia is a major donor and has about 400 peacekeeping troops there.