Tuesday, March 29, 2011

No hope for Australia's East Timor solution

AUSTRALIA'S controversial plan for a refugee processing centre in East Timor was effectively taken off the agenda before last night's opening of the Bali ministerial summit, with senior officials making it clear the proposal would not form part of the final discussions.

While Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd and Immigration Minister Chris Bowen met with counterparts last night to begin negotiations on a regional asylum-seeker framework, The Australian understands East Timor's government has decided to reject the approach for a centre to house 4000 refugees.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, several senior officials intimately involved in the talks said the Timor proposal had not formed part of any of the official-level discussions that began yesterday, nor was there an expectation it would feature in future negotiations.

Asked if any reference to the Timor centre would be included in today's official communique, one senior official told The Australian: "No."

The omission is a snub to Canberra, which had framed Bali as the venue for discussing the idea, launched in July by Julia Gillard in an attempt to suppress as an election issue the surge of boatpeople arrivals.

Pressed on Timor's likely refusal of the centre, Mr Bowen dodged the issue, claiming that its proposed location in East Timor was never to be considered in Bali.
"We've been very consistent that this is about a framework, this is about an assessment centre," he said. "But the location of an assessment centre is for bilateral discussion, not for discussion through the Bali meeting."

Mr Rudd also moved to manage expectations about the summit: "There are no easy fixes in this business. We're working our way through each of the issues."

In October, Mr Bowen said he would have a "concrete proposal" for a regional processing centre before the Bali meeting. His statement echoed Mr Rudd, who in September told parliament the processing centre plan would "form the subject of discussions when the Bali Process meeting is held in the months ahead".

East Timorese President Jose Ramos-Horta continues to discuss aspects of the proposal with Australian officials, but the nation's powerful Prime Minister, Xanana Gusmao, has privately dismissed it. It is understood Australian officials have started sounding-out other governments in the region about their willingness to host a centre.

Senior Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs official Hamzah Thayeb yesterday dismissed the centre proposal as "a small part of the whole framework".
"I think what is important is for us to come up with this framework first and not to work from the small part to the bigger part," he said.

Indonesia, East Timor and other countries had earlier said the Bali summit was the proper place to deal with the East Timor plan. However, in an apparent snub, East Timor Foreign Minister Zacarias da Costa has travelled to Fiji, where he will be an observer at meetings of the breakaway Melanesian Spearhead Group, chaired by strongman Frank Bainimarama, rather than attend the closer Bali meetings.

A small, relatively junior East Timor delegation arrived yesterday for the Bali talks, led by Vice-Foreign Minister Alberto Carlos.

A spokesman for Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who met Mr Rudd yesterday in Jakarta, said they spoke only briefly about the Bali Process meeting.
Teuku Faizasyah said the Indonesian leader told Mr Rudd now was the best time for the Bali Process to discus a regional refugee protection framework because the political and social upheavals throughout the Middle East and North Africa threatened to generate new tides of asylum-seekers and refugees.

There was better news for the Mr Rudd and Mr Bowen yesterday, with fresh hope that Indonesia's parliament would soon pass legislation criminalising people-smuggling. The long-awaited and long-delayed amendments to the nation's immigration law could be passed by parliament and ratified by Dr Yudhoyono as early as next week. The Australian

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