Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Australia Plan to Divert Asylum Seekers Gets Cool Reception

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Australia Plan to Divert Asylum Seekers Gets Cool Reception

Article excerpt

Australia's new leader Julia Gillard met resistance to her first major policy initiative: diverting asylum seekers to East Timor. The tiny country's prime minister says he was not consulted by Ms. Gillard.

An Australian proposal to divert asylum seekers who arrive by sea to neighboring East Timor for processing has run into resistance and cut short a political honeymoon for Australia's new leader.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced Tuesday that she would establish a regional hub for processing refugees and other immigrants on East Timor, an impoverished half-island nation. Refugees from Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, and other troubled countries regularly try to reach Australia by boat so they can claim political asylum.

The proposal was the first major policy initiative from Ms. Gillard, who replaced Kevin Rudd two weeks ago as leader of the governing Labor Party.

But Timorese politicians have pushed back against the idea. Some have argued that their territory isn't suitable for such a facility and asked why Gillard raised it with President Jose Ramos-Horta, not the country's prime minister. A spokesman for Mr. Ramos-Horta said no formal proposal had been submitted and that the government was still in the dark on the details.

Cool response from neighbors

Compounding the confusion, Indonesia said it hadn't been informed in advance of Gillard's announcement. Most asylum seekers use Indonesia as a transit country to try to reach Australia by boat and the two countries have been working together to deter new arrivals, catch people traffickers who profit from the trade and find a solution for refugees who get stuck in Indonesia.

In her speech at a think tank in Sydney, Gillard described her proposal as a regional response to a "global challenge."

The cool reception from Australia's neighbors has stirred domestic criticism of Gillard's leadership and renewed a bitter political debate over immigration. The government is expected to call elections later this year and Gillard is trying to consolidate her power within the ruling party, which is reportedly divided on the issue.

Gillard said Friday that an offshore refugee center might be set up in another country and denied that she had jumped the gun by naming East Timor.

"Those critics who want to declare the approach dead in week one are mistaken and will, I'm afraid, be disappointed," she said, according to Agence France Presse.

A step backward?

Processing claimants in a third country would be a reprisal of the "Pacific Solution" adopted by Australia in 2001 in response to alarm over boat people. Under the policy, asylum seekers were sent to camps on Nauru and Papua New Guinea. Mr. Rudd closed these camps and began processing refugees who arrive by sea on Christmas Island, an Australian territory. …

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