East Timorese President Jose Ramos-Horta said Wednesday his country had “no plans” to build a detention centre for asylum seekers as proposed by Australia, but remained open to discuss the idea.
“The government of Timor-Leste has no plans to build or authorise a processing centre to be opened in Timor-Leste,” he told AFP, using his tiny country’s formal name.
“It’s not true that we have any plan to build a centre. What’s true is that my government and I are studying the idea and proposal by the Australian government and then we’ll see whether Timor-Leste will accept it.
“We’re keeping an open mind. We’ll decide after we hear the details.”
Foreign minister Zacarias Albano da Costa said Canberra had yet to clarify its position three weeks after Australian prime minister Julia Gillard revealed surprise plans to ship asylum-seekers to impoverished East Timor.
The proposal, seen as a bid to strengthen Gillard’s credentials on immigration and border security ahead of August 21 polls, has been slated by East Timorese lawmakers but the country’s leaders have not ruled it out.
“So far we haven’t received any concrete proposal from Australia. We haven’t said anything to them,” da Costa told reporters late Tuesday after a meeting in Dili with his Indonesian counterpart, Marty Natalegawa.
“Our position remains the same, that Australia, Timor-Leste and other countries in the region have to consider this issue through an appropriate forum.”
Australia’s foreign minister held talks in Indonesia on July 15 to try to muster regional support for the initiative, amid general confusion about Canberra’s intentions.
Natalegawa said more discussions were needed.
“We need to have more conversation, to be better informed, to be better appreciated,” he said.
Gillard has made the offshore processing centre a pillar of her election strategy, while admitting it had not been approved by any of the potential host countries including East Timor.
Asylum seekers are a sensitive issue in Australia and the near-daily arrival of undocumented boats from Asia — usually with the help of Indonesian traffickers — has put immigration to the fore of the election campaign.