SYDNEY // Australia's new leader today launched a plan to stop an influx of asylum seeker boats by making East Timor a hub for processing UN refugee claims for people fleeing war and persecution across Asia. Prime minister Julia Gillard said she had discussed the idea with East Timorese president Jose Ramos Horta and UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres - though neither had signed on yet.
Ms Gillard's announcement was a shift in policy that aims to defuse a politically and racially charged debate that has flared in Australia ahead of elections expected to be held within months. Australia receives just a tiny proportion of the world's asylum seekers, but in the past three years has witnessed a surge of people arriving via Indonesia in rickety boats - some 150 in the past three years carrying around 4,000 people.
Each new boat receives wide media coverage and stirs feelings among many Australians that the country is being forced to take them in. The asylum seekers, mostly Afghans and Sri Lankans who have paid criminal syndicates to bring them to Australia, have overflowed a detention centre at remote Christmas Island and many have been moved to the mainland while their applications are assessed. In her first major speech touching on foreign policy today, Ms Gillard said Australia had an obligation to treat legitimate asylum seekers fairly while also ensuring its borders are secure.
She proposed the creation of a regional centre for processing refugee claims under UN auspices, and that Ramos Horta had agreed to discuss the possibility. Ms Gillard said she had proposed the idea to Mr Guterres, though she did not say what his response was. "A regional processing centre removes the incentive, once and for all, for the people smugglers to send boats to Australia," Ms Gillard said. "Why risk a dangerous journey if you will simply be returned to the regional processing centre?"
She said New Zealand had been asked to support the plan - a likely sign the country would be asked to resettle some people whose applications were approved for refugee status at the centre. She offered few other details - such who would pay for the East Timor centre - but said she would pursue the idea "relentlessly." Refugee advocates cautiously welcomed the plan, as long as applications were assessed under UN guidelines, applicants were treated humanely, and that other countries agreed to accept those who were judged to be legitimate asylum seekers.
"From our perspective this is a positive thing," said John Gibson, the president of the Refugee Council of Australia. He said the plan appeared to be different from an earlier government's system of detaining asylum seekers in prison-like camps on the pacific island of Nauru because it would involve the United Nations. The former system, dismantled by Ms Gillard's predecessor, was criticized by the UN refugee body and other groups as inhumane.
Australia grants nearly 14,000 places a year to migrants for humanitarian reasons, among nearly 190,000 total migrants a year, according to official figures. Fewer than 2 per cent of humanitarian immigrants are asylum seekers who arrive by boat. While migration is generally accepted as positive for the country - Ms Gillard herself is Welsh-born and emigrated as a toddler with her family - Australians have long been divided on the issue of asylum seekers arriving by boat.
Many people want the government to take a tougher line, while others advocate a more open policy. The issue has helped decide elections in the past. Ms Gillard named the issue as a top priority soon after ousting Kevin Rudd in a June 24 revolt in their Labour Party. Today, Ms Gillard sought to appeal to both sides of the debate. "It is wrong to label people who are concerned about unauthorized arrivals as rednecks," Ms Gillard said.
She later added, "Australians' basic decency does not accept the idea of punishing women and children by locking them up behind razor wire, or ignoring people who are fleeing genocide, torture and persecution." Ms Gillard also lifted an order suspending the processing of asylum seeker claims from Sri Lankans - something Mr Rudd imposed in April to try to slow the influx. She left in place an order suspending claims by Afghans.
The leader of the main conservative opposition party, Tony Abbot, also launched his policy today with a promise to "turn back the boats" with tough measures against asylum seekers arriving by sea. * AP