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Australia Seeks Indonesian Support for Offshore Refugee Camp

  • Phil Mercer

Australia's foreign minister is in Jakarta, explaining Canberra's controversial new asylum policy. Indonesia has expressed concern about Australia's plans for a regional refugee processing center in East Timor, fearing additional asylum seekers will flood into the region.

Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith has held talks with his counterpart, Marty Natalegawa, in the Indonesian capital, to discuss Canberra's plans to build a refugee transit camp in neighboring East Timor.

Offshore processing center

Australia believes an offshore processing center would deter asylum seekers, who continue to arrive by boat in its remote northern waters.

Almost 80 vessels have been intercepted by Australian authorities, so far this year. The steady flow of unauthorized arrivals has made border protection a sensitive issue for the government in Canberra, with an election likely to be held in the coming months.

The plan to establish a refugee facility has been rejected by East Timor's parliament, although Australia believes it can convince the country's leadership to support the idea.

Australia needs Indonesia's backing too, as well as agreement from other Western countries which would likely accept refugees from the camp in East Timor.

Will plan go forward?

Smith believes the plan will only proceed with the backing of Indonesia, which signed a bilateral accord with Australia to combat people smuggling in 2002.

"We need to have regional support, either through the Bali process formally or generally throughout the region," Smith said. "Having Indonesia's support, of course, is absolutely essential. Cooperation of the settlement and re-settlement countries is also required to re-settle people who have already been accorded refugee status by the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) in our region."

Australia is anxious to open a new regional asylum processing center, to diffuse a simmering political row about immigration.

Border control

Conservative lawmakers accuse the left-of-center government of losing control of Australia's maritime borders through what they say are soft asylum policies, a charge senior ministers have strongly rejected.

Australia's main immigration detention center at Christmas Island is full and detainees have been flown to the mainland while their claims for refugee status are processed.

About 13,000 refugees are allowed to resettle in Australia, every year, under various international humanitarian programs.

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