Sunday, March 13, 2011

Timor Plan Lost at Sea

Many courses in cross-cultural sensitisation, such as for officials and businessmen being sent on assignments in Asia, start with a study of how people say yes and no in the other country. People can otherwise come back with idea that they have a deal, when they haven't, or that they've been rebuffed when they've really been told the proposal is promising but needs more studying.

Julia Gillard's plan for a regional processing centre for asylum seekers in East Timor has now been around for eight months since it was first floated before last year's federal election. It is now fair to say the response has been so underwhelming the idea is now effectively dead in the water. It was never much of a goer anyway. Housing several thousand refugees in a camp or camps in a desperately poor country would be hugely destabilising, creating envy and resentment among the population outside. Instead of being a deterrent to fake or exaggerated attempts to gain refugee status and resettlement, the system could become a magnet. There are intrinsic doubts about who would ''own'' the asylum seekers and obligations to them.

As much as East Timor would like to help Australia it doesn't want to be left with people no other country wants.

The reception in the two countries that are the major stepping stones for boat people, Malaysia and Indonesia, has also been politely lukewarm. As recently as the end of January, Malaysia's Prime Minister was saying he didn't know about the proposal. In Canberra this month Najib Razak was still saying ''we need a bit of time'' to discuss it. Last week the Indonesian Foreign Minister said it would be up to Australia to make a case for the East Timor solution at a regional meeting of foreign ministers in Bali at the end of the month.

Now a senior adviser to the visiting Indonesian Vice-President has frankly declared it a ''terrible idea'', as it would create a lot of security and social problems for Indonesia itself,

given the porous border between East Timor and the Indonesian half of the island of Timor, one of the country's poorest regions. Dewi Fortuna Anwar's boss is a bit more diplomatic, but the regional message by now is quite clear: No. The Gillard government has already admitted this tacitly by announcing a new detention centre near Darwin as a ''contingency measure''. It should add the Timor plan to its list of unwise election promises and tell Australians they're lucky not to have the refugee pressures of countries like Italy. Editorial, Sydney Morning Herald

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