Australia Jumps The Queue In East Timor


Last week Australia’s Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen, was in Dili to lobby for a refugee detention centre. While senior government ministers in East Timor had condemned President José Ramos-Horta’s initial talks, there has been increased support from within government ranks for the recent negotiations with Chris Bowen.

But otherwise, there’s widespread disapproval of the proposal.

Since July, the East Timor Parliament, the NGO Forum and a public petition presented to Bowen in Dili have all publicly urged rejection of the proposal to build a refugee processing centre in East Timor. Indeed, the last time there was such widespread opposition was when Prime Minister Gusmão ordered indicted war criminal Maternus Bere to be released to the Indonesian government in August 2009. 

Most Timorese people don’t understand the finer points of Australia’s refugee policy. They don’t know about Cornelia Rau, the hunger strikes, or the Amnesty International reports — but they oppose the centre for a variety of reasons.

Many are against it because they think that East Timor’s first priority should be its own people’s basic needs. Few Timorese people can access clean water. Many can’t get to a doctor, or a school — half the population is illiterate. This year crazy weather has led to floods, landslides and big winds, tipping subsistence farmers over the brink. People I’ve spoken to don’t understand why a big, rich country like Australia is trying to offload its responsibilities onto its struggling half-island neighbour.

East Timor itself has only just closed the transitional shelters and camps for its own internal refugees from the 2006 crisis in Dili. Over 100,000 people, roughly 10 per cent of the population, fled their homes, with a third of those ending up in camps. To encourage displaced people to head home, the government gave large compensation payments to those in the camps. This exacerbated social jealousies between camp dwellers, those staying elsewhere, and communities receiving returnees. Former PM Mari Alkatiri, among others, raised concerns that a refugee detention centre would threaten internal security by creating similar issues.

Also, any new laws to create a refugee detention centre would interrupt current legislative processes — such as laws on juvenile justice, a new land and property regime and support to war victims. The justice system works poorly, and many 2006 cases still await trial. The inevitable court cases a refugee processing centre would bring would prolong the already long wait Timorese people face before they get to court. In Dili, Chris Bowen’s advisors explained that the refugee centre was needed to deter "queue jumpers" — but the Australian government would have to be prepared to do some queue jumping of its own.

To establish a refugee processing centre, Australia would have to ensure that there were no overlapping land claims for a proposed site, or else negotiate with all legitimate claim holders. Alternatively it risks being complicit in land rights violations. Because of the lack of land laws, it’s not clear who owns land in East Timor. In numerous cases the East Timor Ministry for Justice has simply claimed properties as State land, without recognising others’ land claims or ensuring just compensation. Traditional customary landowners and vulnerable people have no means to assert and defend a land claim.

The island of Atauro has been put forward as one possible site — both the Portuguese and Indonesians dumped their political prisoners here, and land claims are complex.

Given these challenges, and the fact that East Timor’s own asylum seeker processing facility is an unused one room demountable in a parking lot, it’s hard to see what East Timor has to gain. Unlike Nauru, East Timor has oil and gas revenues which, for the moment, suffice. President Ramos-Horta maintains that East Timor is simply big-hearted, happy to help out its neighbour. Some in Dili speculate that in return for processing refugees, East Timor expects Australian company Woodside to bring LNG processing onshore.

Given all these issues, would the East Timor government ever agree to a refugee detention centre on its soil? When it comes to international relations, East Timor has broken under pressure before. Under economic pressure, the Timorese government has already relinquished (pdf) oil resources worth tens of billions of dollars to Australia. On the tenth anniversary of the 1999 referendum the Prime Minister illegally released Maternus Bere on the request of the Indonesian government. It’s a new democracy, and accountability is weak. It’s hard to rule the possibility out completely.

One ironic aspect to the debate is that tens of thousands of Timorese people were themselves once refugees, many in Australia. There is still no justice for the crimes they were fleeing. For the last two decades the Australian government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to deter vulnerable people seeking a safe haven. It has rewritten laws and redrawn maps in order to turn back people who are, in most cases, legitimate refugees. By contrast, it hasn’t lifted a finger to support justice for crimes against humanity in East Timor. We lock up refugees, but not the people who persecute them.

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