Government pushes for offshore detention

Rally for Hazara refugees from Afghanistan in Sydney, May 30. Photo: Pip Hinman

Immigration minister Chris Bowen visited East Timor on October 11 to push Australia’s offshore detention centre plan.

He also visited Indonesia and Malaysia over October 12-14. Bowen’s purpose was to enforce “strong cooperation with regional neighbours” on Australia’s border control.

He said he wanted East Timor to “play a role” by allowing the Australian government to build a refugee detention centre there.

During the federal election. Prime Minister Julia Gillard proposed an offshore processing system, which included an Australian-built detention centre in East Timor. She said on July 7: “I will relentlessly pursue through regional cooperation, creating a regional processing centre.”

The idea was pitched to the Australian voters before it was even mentioned to East Timor’s government.

Despite its initial rejection by Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao, and months of protest from Timorese people and politicians, Gillard said it “would remain a priority”.

Bowen told Radio Australia on October 11 that East Timor “remains as our focus”.

East Timor’s President Jose Ramos Horta agreed to host talks with Australia, taking the opportunity to outline “conditions”.

Ramos Horta said |building a detention centre would cost about US$30 million, with an annual cost of $30 million to keep it running.

Ramos Horta said: “Any asylum seekers centre has to be a regional mechanism, it has to be led by the UNHCR, it has to be financed by others … and it has to be temporary, not permanent”, World News Australia reported on October 11.

He said refugees should only be held in such a facility for “a maximum of three years”.

Bowen said such a centre “could hold up to 2,000 people”, the Australian said on October 13. It remained unclear how refugees would be detained and transported to East Timor.

The funds were likely to come from Australia’s budget and the International Migration Organisation. Yet the intended expenditure to keep asylum seekers from reaching Australia is absurd in a country where 24-hour electricity and access to fresh water are still problems for the majority, and the price of rice continues to rise.

Indonesia said Australia should bring its proposal to the Bali Process summit in 2011. The 50-nation summit was supposedly set up to “combat people smuggling”.

The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, a community group based in Melbourne, said Gillard’s justifications for “regional processing” were entirely false. On its website the ASRC said regional processing had nothing to do with concern over the safety of refugees who make the dangerous journey to Australia by boat.

“A policy focused on stemming the influx of boats carrying asylum seekers to Australia by scuttling the trade of people-smuggling … has nothing to do with what drives people to flee their homelands by boat in the first place”, the ASRC said.

“Denying people entry to Australia does not bring people peace and stability in Afghanistan, nor can it assuage the fear of persecution for Tamils in Sri Lanka.”

While Bowen was travelling, the Greens proposed legislation to parliament to free the 742 children that were presently held in detention in Australia.

Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young said: “We want a tripartisan agreement to deal with this problem and get children and their families out of detention. We will talk to all sides to ensure that these important reforms to the Migration Act are passed.”

It appears that the major parties may agree to release the detained children. After discussions with Bowen, Hanson-Young told October 16 West Australian: “My understanding is that we will be trying to get all of those children, and those who have come with family, out of the detention system.”

Liberal shadow immigration minister Scott Morrison also spoke in favour of releasing the children. However, the ALP and Liberals both remain committed to mandatory detention of adult asylum seekers.

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