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Centre for refugees still just a vague idea on paper

Sydney Morning Herald - December 20, 2011

Lindsay Murdoch, Darwin – More than five months after the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, announced she wanted to send asylum seekers to East Timor to "wreck the people-smuggling trade", the tiny island nation has finally received a document from Australia outlining the proposal.

The Timorese Foreign Minister, Zacarias da Costa, says the document provides a broad concept for a regional processing centre in his country.

"I wouldn't say the document has much detail but it has more detail than we had before," Mr da Costa said. "We can at last clarify what Australia has in mind to [East Timor's] cabinet."

Amid concern about the proposal among Asian nations and widespread opposition in East Timor, the government in Dili has referred negotiations on it to a 50-nation meeting on people-smuggling called the Bali Process.

A date has yet to be set for the process's next ministerial-level meeting, which was expected to be held before the end of this year but will not take place until February at the earliest.

A meeting of Timorese and Australian officials to discuss the proposal, which the Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen, said in September would be held within weeks, has still not taken place.

A spokesman for Mr Bowen said the government would announce dates for the meeting "when these are confirmed".

Mr da Costa said senior officials had worked on a concept paper before the Bali Process meeting. "About 50 countries are involved, so it is not easy."

Countries taking part in the Bali Process, which is co-chaired by Indonesia and Australia, include Afghanistan, China, India, Paki- stan, Russia, Sri Lanka and the US, as well as agencies such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Decision-making at its previous meetings has been slow and bureaucratic.

Officials discussed some of the agenda for the next meeting at a workshop co-hosted by the UNHCR and the Philippine government in Manila last month.

A spokeswoman for Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said "the idea of a processing centre as an element in a framework approach was raised in the discussion".

But officials stopped short of endorsing a regional processing centre, saying they saw value in developing a "regional framework approach".

After Ms Gillard revealed the proposal in July, Indonesia said it should be considered in the Bali Process, established in 2002 to counter people-smuggling in the Asia-Pacific region.

East Timor's leaders decided in September they would not consider the plan outside of the Bali Process, rebuffing Ms Gillard, who said before the election the proposal was such a priority that if elected she would travel to East Timor to negotiate personally with its leaders.

All the main political parties in Dili have stated their opposition to the proposal. But the Timorese Prime Minister, Xanana Gusmao, has said he remains open to the idea being discussed in the Bali Process as part of a regional agreement.

Mr da Costa told the Herald that the Christmas Island boat tragedy would not change how it was handling Australia's proposal.

The opposition Fretilin party has warned that East Timor would become a target for asylum seekers if the centre was built because it would be seen as a conduit for reaching Australia.