Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s high-handed attempts to impose a “regional asylum seeker processing centre” on East Timor have angered Timorese politicians and activists.
Despite Gillard’s talk about finding a regional solution to a regional problem, the “problem” of “unauthorised boat arrivals” in Australia is one of perception.
The Liberal-National opposition and the Murdoch tabloids have devoted considerable energy to creating anxiety in sections of the Australian community about the country being swamped by “boat people”.
Gillard has pointed out that refugees account for less than two percent of migrants to Australia (and that boat arrivals are a small proportion of refugees).
But she has been unwilling to challenge the assertion that the small number of refugees arriving by boat represents a major security threat. Instead she chose to dog whistle for the racist vote.
Gillard formulated her “East Timor solution” to solve her problem of wanting to be as “tough” on “border protection” as opposition leader Tony Abbott, while still having a different policy.
Abbott’s policy on refugees is simply to revive former PM John Howard’s asylum regime. This included temporary visas and the “Pacific solution”, whereby Australia detained refugees in Australian-financed and controlled camps in Nauru and Papua New Guinea.
On July 6, Gillard announced that she was in negotiations with the East Timorese government about the proposed centre. She stressed that East Timor, unlike Nauru, was a signatory to the UN refugee convention, thereby differentiating her proposal from the “Pacific solution”.
Asked by an ABC reporter on July 11 what he thought of Gillard’s plan, East Timorese PM Xanana Gusmao responded, “What plan?”
On July 13, the Timorese parliament voted unanimously to reject the proposal. Fernando Lasama de Araujo, the president of the parliament, said : “'This is one of the very important resolutions that the government must pay serious attention to. Timor Leste does not accept the request, because the real situation of the people in the country does not allow for it.”
Timorese objections were based, in part, on the social and economic strains that it would put on one of the world's poorest nations. East Timor ranks 158th out of 179 countries in the Human Development Index.
Life expectancy is about 60, and the adult literacy rate is only 50.1%. Forty-six percent of children under five years’ old are underweight and 49% of East Timorese live on less than US$1 a day.
Recent history has undermined Australian promises of economic benefits to East Timor. For example, in September 2009, East Timorese NGO Luta Hamatuk was quoted by ABC’s The World Today as saying only 10% of Australian aid actually made it to the East Timorese people.
In an opinion piece in the July 15 Sydney Morning Herald opposing the proposal, editor of the Dili-based Tempo Semanal Jose Belo pointed out: “Hundreds of millions of dollars in Australian aid have flowed to Timor in the past decade, and much of it has flowed right out again in, for example, the form of salaries for a highly paid army of foreign consultants and advisers.”
The Australian government’s response to the unanimous resolution of the East Timorese parliament was to ignore it.
Foreign minister Stephen Smith told the ABC on July 13: “Unlike the Australian Parliament, East Timorese ministers do not sit in East Timorese parliament so this is a reflection on those members of the East Timorese parliament at the time and not the government's response.”
Gillard and Smith have said that their negotiations with Gusmao and President Jose Ramos Horta are continuing. “I think it is important not to over-interpret the resolution passed by the East Timor Parliament”, Smith told News.com.
This dismissive attitude toward East Timorese sovereignty touched a nerve. Deputy PM Mario Viegas Carrascalao told AFP on July 14: “Timor Leste is not a colony of another country. We have sovereignty and our people have rights to decide for themselves what they want. We don't want another country to dictate to us. We're already independent and won't be a puppet of any other country.”
Australia has a long history of disrespecting East Timor’s sovereignty. In 1974-75 it encouraged Indonesia’s then-dictator General Suharto to invade. For 25 years, Australia was the main diplomatic advocate of a genocidal occupation. East Timor lost a third of its population under Indonesian rule.
In 1989, Australia signed the Timor Gap Treaty with Suharto, giving Australian corporations access to the oil and gas reserves in the Timor Sea.
Australia’s 1999 intervention helped East Timor gain independence after a period of UN rule, but the Timor Sea Treaty signed on May 20, 2002, the same day East Timor became independent, allowed for continued Australian exploitation of the Timor Sea oil and gas.
Timorese mistrust of Australia has been heightened by a further Australian military intervention in 2006 (this time not responding to genocidal Indonesian-backed militias, as in 1999), Canberra’s alleged role in the overthrow of then-PM Mari Alkatiri and allegations that the Australian troops interfered in the 2007 elections .
East Timor’s poverty has meant it has had to do deals with foreign corporations to exploit its natural resources. Currently, the East Timorese government is involved in negotiations with the Australian corporation Woodside Petroluem to exploit the Greater Sunrise gas reserves in the Timor Sea.
Woodside wants to build a floating rig to extract the gas, but East Timor wants a pipeline to Timor so the processing can happen onshore. This would give it greater control over its resources and provide much needed employment.
Since the negotiations for the 2002 Timor Sea Treaty began, Australia has put obstacles in the way of East Timor’s plan to process its own oil and gas. This is another source of resentment over the Gillard government’s plan for facilities to be built in East Timor to “process” refugees.
However, the promise of ending Australian opposition to onshore hydrocarbon processing, pressure on Woodside and technical assistance to build the facility, could conceivably be used to leverage East Timor into agreeing to warehouse refugees for Australia.
During the Indonesian occupation, large numbers of Timorese were themselves refugees. The consequent sympathetic attitude towards other refugees could also create problems for Gillard’s “Timor solution”.
Arsenio Bano, vice-president the opposition party Fretilin, told the ABC on July 8, “I don't think there's a problem with assisting. I think the question is whether Timor wants to be a processing centre or other type of Pacific Solution, I don't think it is appropriate for Timor. If we want to decide to accept any refugees in Timor we have to be able to offer the same level of services that we offer to our own people so you avoid discrimination [and] other problems [like] racism and so on.”
Ramos Horta told the ABC on July 11: “If you ask a Timorese person in the street how he or she look at people who flee violence, extreme poverty, they share the same sentiment as I do.”
He explained that if they were to be processed in East Timor: “They should have freedom to move around in this country. If there are children, children should be able to go to school. If there are some women who need to go to see the doctor in our main hospital in Dili or any other person, they should be able to travel freely. They would be given documents to travel freely within the country.”
A centre that allows refugees such freedom of movement, however, is probably not what Gillard had in mind.