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Activists say no to proposed new refugee centre

Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao would not say whether the police would be ready for next year's handover, but he insisted it was time for local police to get back out on the streets.
(Jesse Wright/IRIN)

Timor-Leste activists have rejected a controversial Australian plan to set up a refugee processing centre in Timor-Leste. The plan was also voted down by the Timorese parliament on 12 July.

“The proposal is yet one more example of how [current and previous] Australian governments continue to abuse the people of Timor-Leste,” Dinorah Granadeiro, executive director of the Timor-Leste NGO Forum, said in a statement by seven Timorese NGOs and civil society groups. “We must be strong and resist such a patronizing suggestion.”

As Australia’s Christmas Island Immigration Detention Centre suffers overcrowding, Prime Minister Julia Gillard on 6 July proposed a centre in Timor-Leste - Asia’s newest and one of its poorest nations - to ease the burden.

Like previous offshore centres, the plan would keep refugees at a distance while processing their asylum requests. Gillard was particularly concerned about cutting down on human traffickers who ship refugees to the Australian mainland in rickety boats.

Timor-Leste Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao has requested that Gillard provide a more detailed plan for the refugee centre, but parliament and civil society groups have said no to Canberra.

“This is not the right time for Timor-Leste to accept the proposition,” said Joao Pequinho, head of Forum Taumatan and signatory of the NGO statement.

The Timorese have suggested that its own people - recovering from brutal Indonesian military rule that ended in 1999 - still face unemployment, hunger and homelessness, and will be clamouring to get into the proposed refugee centre themselves.

“People here will want to apply to be in the centre because the living conditions will be better than their own,” said Charles Scheiner, a researcher at La'o Hamutuk, a civil society organization in Dili. “I haven’t met anyone who thinks it’s a good idea.”

Granadeiro, of Timor-Leste NGO Forum, accused Australia of insulting the Timorese by consulting Indonesia, which invaded the island in 1975 and left more than 200,000 dead during decades of iron-fisted rule.

“Such arrogance towards Timor-Leste can be seen in how it [Australia] seemed more interested in seeking the approval of the Indonesian government before it sought the approval of the Timorese people,” Granadeiro said. “It seems Australia’s attitude towards Timor-Leste has not changed since 1975.”

“Out of sight, out of mind”

The proposal, although not yet fleshed out, has been compared to Australia’s previous “Pacific Solution” that began in 2001, and used three Pacific islands for processing centres for refugees en route to Australia. The centres were closed in 2008 by Kevin Rudd, Gillard’s predecessor who left office on 24 June.

But Gillard’s proposition is part of a bigger problem in Australia, said Jane McAdam, an international refugee law professor at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.

“There’s a huge amount of hostility in the community toward refugees and asylum-seekers because of misinformation,” McAdam said, noting that of the 13,750 refugees the country accepts every year, a couple of thousand come by boat. “Australia has the capacity to deal with it, but it’s more a matter of out of sight, out of mind.”

Experts say a regional processing centre could work, if it cuts down on people smuggling and is genuinely committed to resettling legitimate asylum-seekers. Some believe Timor-Leste has an obligation to help resolve the refugee problem in the region and uphold human rights, but can barely handle its own problems.

“It’s about commitment, moral obligation and humanitarian principles,” said Emanuel Bria, an activist with the Luta Hamutuk organization which works to empower citizens.

“On one hand Timor-Leste has an international responsibility, but on the other hand, Timor-Leste just cannot handle asylum-seekers.”


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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