Australian refugee center in East Timor: a regional issue?

Andrew Hecht

Joseph Nevins, under the pseudonym Matthew Jardine, once described East Timor under Indonesian occupation as “genocide in paradise.” It always seemed oxymoronic how something so beautiful could be so tragic.

East Timor, officially Timor-Leste, is the newest and poorest country in Asia. It is located in the Southeastern region of Indonesia and in proximity to Australia. Gaining independence from Indonesia in 1999, East Timor has been riddled with obstacles to overcome. According to the CIA World Factbook, the disastrous 1999 Scorched Earth Campaign sponsored by pro-Indonesian militias destroyed the majority of East Timor’s already sparse infrastructure and displaced more than 300,000 East Timorese. In its 23-year tenure, the Indonesian military brutally murdered 200,000 Timorese, which was one-third of the total population.

Julia Gillard, Australian prime minister, has proposed an Australian funded regional refugee detention center on East Timor. According to the AFP, recent elections prompted Gillard to propose the center as a means to counter people smuggling, which is the black market term for people who provide illegal transportation and thus illegal entry into Australia. Refugees who are caught illegally entering Australia are sent to one of seven different detention centers while their status of asylum is processed by the Australian government. Conditions in the centers are overcrowded and filthy, leading to allegations of abuse.

The proposal is for a regional hub, which seems a lame attempt to garner support from Southeast Asian countries. In a piece from the Australian by Greg Sheridan, Australian head of Immigration Andrew Metcalfe was quoted as saying “this is very much around the people who have been seeking to come to Australia.” Regionally speaking, Greg Sheridan makes a great point by saying “that logically the Thai government could send Burmese seeking asylum on their border to East Timor.” Considering the large spatial gap between Thailand and East Timor, this is meant as a joke.

The problem is an Australian one. Although people smuggling can be considered a regional issue, asylum seekers are seeking asylum in Australia. There is no benefit for the region as much as there is benefit for Australia. People smuggling won’t end as a result of the center either. If anything, there’s potential for it to be made worse. According to Sheridan’s article, East Timorese President and Nobel laureate Jose Ramos-Horta asked for a “three-year limit” for refugees to be detained in the center. Presumably, after a short stay on East Timor, refugees will make the illegal trip to Australia. Refugees are supposed to be sent back to their native country if asylum is rejected, but very few actually end up leaving. People smugglers will benefit, as there will be an open market for their services.

In a selection from the AFP, Natalino dos Santos, a member of the dominant National Council of East Timorese Resistance political party, was quoted as saying:

In a selection from the AFP, Natalino dos Santos, a member of the dominant National Council of East Timorese Resistance political party, was quoted as saying:

“We cannot give land to people from another country while at the same time our people are homeless… Our priority is to create social and political stability in East Timor and only then can we consider such a refugee center.”

Dos Santos hits the nail on the coffin. In a country that has been consistently riddled with tragedy and developmental problems, it should not and, for all intents and purposes, cannot take the brunt of an Australian problem. If the building of the center comes to fruition, it will have disastrous effects on East Timor’s stability and ability to progress as a country.

Andrew Hecht is a senior political science major and guest columnist for the Daily Kent Stater. Contact him at [email protected].