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Australia proposes East Timor as offshore center for assessing refugee claims

SYDNEY (AP) — Australia's new leader proposed Tuesday that East Timor become a U.N.-approved processing hub for asylum seekers as a way to stem a recent influx of boat people from Afghanistan and other countries in Asia.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard pitched the idea as a regional solution to part of a global problem, but it was squarely aimed at defusing a thorny domestic political issue ahead of elections expected within months.

Tiny, impoverished East Timor said it was considering the plan at Australia's request, but expressed reservations that it was ready to host such a facility.

The announcement was the second major policy shift in a week, as Gillard prepares for the elections — and just two weeks after she toppled her former boss in a revolt within the government.

Australia adds some 190,000 people a year to its 22 million-strong population through various migration programs, including nearly 14,000 places granted for humanitarian reasons, according to official figures.

It just receives a tiny proportion of the world's asylum seekers, around 6,500 last year compared to almost 290,000 for Europe and 82,000 in the United States and Canada combined, according to the U.N. refugee agency. Less than 2 percent of them arrive illegally by boat.

But a regular trickle of rickety boats intercepted on their way from Indonesia — some 150 boats in the past three years carrying 4,000 mostly Afghans and Sri Lankans — has driven a political debate about border security.

The arrival of each new boat receives wide media coverage and stirs feelings among many Australians that the country is being forced to take them in. A detention center at remote Christmas Island overflowed this year, and some asylum seekers have been brought to the mainland while their applications are processed, which usually takes months.

Gillard, in a speech that touched on foreign policy for the first time, said a regional processing center would rob those who want to come to Australia of a powerful incentive to try it by paying crime syndicates to bring them.

"The purpose would be to ensure that people smugglers have no product to sell," Gillard said. "A boat ride to Australia would just be a ticket back to the regional processing center."

East Timor's Deputy Prime Minister Jose Luis Guterres said the government was considering Gillard's plan, but noted his fledgling country's lack of capacity to run such a center, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported.

"We have so many issues that we have to deal with and bringing another problem, another issue to the country, I don't think it's wise for any politician to do it," Guterres was quoted as saying.

The new policy brings Gillard's government closer into line with the conservative opposition by keeping asylum seekers' out of the country while their applications are processed, though it retains humanitarian protections sought by the United Nations.

The opposition is campaigning on a return to an earlier policy that detained asylum seekers in camps on small Pacific island countries without U.N. oversight, the so-called "Pacific Solution." Many asylum seekers spent years languishing in the camps under the plan, which was heavily criticized by the U.N. and others.

Refugee advocates reacted cautiously to Gillard's plan and called for more detail, noting some similarities to the earlier contentious system.

"If what the government has in mind is simply a re-badged Pacific solution then this is of course unacceptable" and at odds with international conventions, said Claire Mallinson of London-based Amnesty International.

John Gibson, president of the Refugee Council of Australia, said Gillard's plan differed from the earlier system in that it involved the United Nations.

As long as applications were assessed under U.N. guidelines, applicants were treated humanely, and other countries were lined up to resettle those judged to be legitimate refugees, "from our perspective this is a positive thing," he said.

Gillard said she had discussed the proposal with U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres, but did not say what his reaction was.

While migration is generally accepted as positive for the country — Gillard herself is Welsh-born and emigrated as a toddler with her family — Australians have long been divided on the issue of sea-borne asylum seekers.

Gillard named the issue as a top priority soon after ousting Kevin Rudd as prime minister on June 24 — a sign that the ruling Labor Party believed it was politically vulnerable on the topic. Gillard has said she will call elections within months, and has set about addressing issues that made Rudd unpopular in opinion polls. Last week, she announced a deal with mining companies that quieted a bitter row over a new tax.

In her speech, Gillard said it was wrong to label people who were concerned about unauthorized arrivals as "rednecks," but added that ignoring people who were fleeing persecution went against the basic decency of Australians.