As the policy-lite federal election runs down to the finish line, one issue widely regarded as just so much debate-neutralising fluff – locating an asylum seeker processing facility in East Timor – is now looking a lot more substantial than initially understood. Although talks about establishing a facility in East Timor are on hold due to the government’s caretaker mode, the issue is now being taken very seriously and considerably more favorably within East Timor itself.
Importantly, it is now clear that the original idea for processing asylum seekers in East Timor was first mooted within East Timor prior to Australia’s recent change of political leadership. That is, while the announcement might have been poorly handled by newly minted Prime Minister Gillard, its origins pre-date her ascendency to the prime ministership. The proposal was, contrary to widespread perception, a lot more substantial than a momentary ‘thought-bubble’.
The idea of establishing an asylum seeker processing centre in East Timor still has detractors, both in Australia and in East Timor. Many in East Timor continue to wonder why a wealthy and organized Australian government cannot address its own problems within its own shores.
East Timorese note they still have plenty of problems to overcome without taking on those of a neighbour that, relatively, has so few. Many East Timorese shake their head in wonder at Australia’s policy vacuity. But then, so do many Australians.
Within Australia, opposition to the ‘East Timor solution’ revolves around two camps. The first opposes off-shore asylum-seeker processing as an abrogation of Australia’s legal international responsibilities to people fleeing persecution. The second simply believes that off-shore processing should be conducted on Nauru, despite the fact that of the two camps built there one has fallen into disrepair and the other is now a school.
In East Timor, there is genuine resentment about the lack of consultation on this issue and what can only be described as a premature announcement by the Prime Minister, Ms Gillard. But the East Timor government is now seriously engaged with the idea. This does not guarantee its success, of course, and if an agreement is reached East Timor would extract a substantial price.
But importantly, what is informing serious engagement with processing asylum seekers in East Timor is a profound understanding of what it is like to suffer, and wish to escape, repression. East Timor also wants to lead by example, to show the world that there can humanitarian responses to critical humanitarian needs.
So, what would an asylum seeker processing centre in East Timor look like? To start, it would not be a prison. It would seek to establish as quickly as possible whether there would be specific risks from allowing asylum seekers freedom of movement. Once assured of no criminal status, asylum seekers would be free while they waited for their status to be processed. Asylum seekers found to be convicted criminals would be returned to their countries of origin, except where they faced the death sentence, which is banned in East Timor.
Such a centre would be run under the auspices of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees with assistance from UNICEF and the International Organisation for Migration, but staffed primarily by East Timorese. There would also be strict timelines placed on processing, with those deemed genuine refugees to come immediately to Australia.
The location for the facility would be East Timor’s less developed south coast, with the centre contributing much needed infrastructure development. This parallels East Timor’s continuing desire to have a liquid natural gas processing facility established on the south coast, to boost local infrastructure development.
If these and the various other conditions that the East Timorese government would insist on were not met, the whole thing could be dropped with no more loss than a few hours of unfulfilled discussion. The idea of the processing centre was not part of East Timor’s development plan, so it would not be missed.
Whether or not the ‘East Timor solution’ is pursued depends, of course, on the outcome of the forthcoming elections. It may be that Australia’s asylum seeker policy orientation ends up returning to the Nauru option instead. But it is perhaps a valuable lesson that a small, poor and still struggling nation considers that if it is to care for asylum seekers, it should be on the basis of humanitarian principles rather than political expediency.