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Australian Prime Minister Backs Away From East Timor Asylum Plan

Australia's new prime minister, Julia Gillard, is backing away from a controversial proposal to set up a regional refugee processing center in East Timor.

Earlier this week, Prime Minister Gillard said she had spoken with East Timor President Jose Ramos Horta about setting up a refugee camp to cope with an influx of boat people seeking asylum. The goal was to deter people from making the perilous sea journey to enter Australia illegally.

The plan drew puzzled responses from East Timorese law makers, who said they had not been fully consulted and that their country was not ready to accommodate such a detention facility. In Dili, Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao said he had not received an official approach from his Australian counterpart.

Ms. Gillard has been forced to backtrack, and has since said that East Timor was not specified as the site for a regional processing center.

The conservative opposition leader Tony Abbott has seized on the government's apparent confusion over its asylum policy.

"I think what we've seen is poor judgement from the prime minister and a total failure of process from the government. She should not have made an announcement like this without getting prior consent from the East Timorese government," Abbott said. "And she certainly shouldn't have made an announcement like this without fully discussing it with the Foreign Minister Stephen Smith."

Immigration will be one of the key issues in the general election expected in Australia in the coming months.

So far this year, more than 75 vessels carrying asylum seekers, mostly from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, have sailed into the country's remote northern waters. The influx has led to opposition claims the Labor government has lost control of Australia's borders.

Most boat people are detained while their asylum claims are processed. The main detention center, at Christmas Island, is full and scores of detainees have been flown to emergency accommodations on the Australian mainland.

The issue of illegal immigration has been a dominant theme in Australian politics for many years. While many Australians are proud of the country's multicultural fabric, others are less welcoming of those seen as queue jumpers, arriving illegally by boat.

Official figures show that the majority of boat people are genuine refugees. Australia resettles about 13,000 displaced people per year through various humanitarian programs.