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February 2, 2011

Open letter: No “East Timor solution”

by refugeeactioncoalitionsydney

Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s plan for a regional asylum seekers’ processing centre in East Timor has caused widespread concern there, where political parties and non-government organisations – indeed the parliament – have all expressed their opposition.

The Refugee Action Coalition believes it is an attempt to replicate the Pacific Solution of the Howard government. The “East Timor solution” is an attempt to “stop the boats” and subvert Australia’s commitment to the Refugee Convention and its obligation to welcome asylum seekers at its borders.

We have initiated an “Open letter to President Ramos Horta and the people of Timor Leste” to encourage the opposition in East Timor and demonstrate the widespread opposition that exists in Australia to this proposal. Current signatories include John Pilger, Noam Chomsky, union leader Sally McManus, and refugee advocates including Phil Glendenning, Sr Susan Connelly and many others.

Open letter to President Jose Ramos Horta and the people of Timor-Leste

We, the undersigned supporters and advocates for refugee rights in Australia, are writing to encourage you to reject Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s proposal to establish a regional asylum seekers’ processing centre in Timor-Leste – her so-called “East Timor solution”.

Her plan for a new offshore detention centre in Timor-Leste is nothing more than a new version of the former Howard government’s discredited Pacific Solution.

Offshore processing is an attempt by the Australian government to avoid its obligations to protect asylum seekers. The Pacific Solution was established to prevent asylum seekers reaching Australia by boat, and to push countries other than Australia to accept those found to be refugees. It was internationally condemned.

Prime Minister Gillard claims her approach is different because she wants to involve the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR. But the UNHCR has not indicated its support for the centre and opposes any attempt by Australia to use the regional processing centre as an alternative to processing asylum seekers in Australia. But that is exactly what the Australian government is proposing to do – intercept boats on their way to Australia and divert them to Timor-Leste. The Australian Prime Minister said on 6 July 2010, “Arriving by boat would just be a ticket back to the regional processing centre”.[1]
The UNHCR, Amnesty International and the Australian Human Rights Commission have all expressed their opposition to offshore processing as it occurs under Australia’s jurisdiction on Christmas Island.

In any case, the UNHCR already processes asylum seekers in countries in the region including Malaysia and Indonesia. There are an estimated 3200 people registered with the UNHCR in Indonesia, but in 2010 Australia accepted less than 100.[2]

The Australian government has committed only to taking its “fair share” of refugees from any regional processing facility. New Zealand has indicated that it will not increase its present quota of 750 UNHCR refugees.[3]

Asylum seekers on their way to seek protection in Australia are Australia’s responsibility. Timor-Leste and the other poor countries in the region should not be expected to take responsibility for them.

Conditions in the Australian mandatory detention system alone raise sufficient concerns for Timor-Leste to oppose the regional processing centre. The policy of imprisoning asylum seekers arriving by boat is a clear breach of the UN Convention on Refugees, which clearly states that a person must not have penalties imposed on them because their arrival is unauthorised. The UN Human Rights Committee has also found that mandatory detention breaches the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
Mental health expert and Australian of the Year Professor Patrick McGorry has rightly described Australia’s detention centres as “factories for mental illness”. There is now a long history and sustained medical evidence of the harm that detention causes to asylum seekers. Many detainees have self-harmed, attempted suicide and staged protests because of the harm that detention causes them.

Timor-Leste was founded out of its own long struggle for human rights for its people. We believe the Gillard government should be upholding the rights of asylum seekers in our region, not undermining them. We note that the Timor-Leste parliament voted in July 2010 against hosting a regional detention centre. There is widespread opposition in Australia to our government’s proposal.

We hope that you will uphold the rights of asylum seekers under the Refugee Convention and other international conventions such as the Convention Against Torture and the Rights of the Child, and say no to a regional processing centre in Timor-Leste.

Australia is by far the best equipped, and the best resourced country in the region to process and resettle refugees.

Initial signatories:

Sisters Josephine Mitchell and Susan Connelly, Mary MacKillop East Timor Mission; Sally McManus, NSW Secretary, Australian Services Union, Tim Anderson, Senior Lecturer, Political Economy, Sydney Uni; Antony Loewenstein, journalist and author; Professor Noam Chomsky, author and academic; Phil Glendenning, Edmund Rice Centre; John Pilger, filmmaker and journalist; NSW Greens; Balmain for Refugees; Bridge for Asylum seekers foundation; Coalition for the protection of Asylum seekers ; Stephen Langford, Secretary Australia East Timor Association; Labor for Refugees (Vic); Associate Professor Jake Lynch, Director Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, Sydney Uni; Project SafeCom; RAC (Sydney); Asylum seeker resource centre (Melbourne); RAC (Vic); Professor Margaret Vickers School of Education University of Western Sydney; Professor Frank Brennan SJ AO; Dr. Michael Grewcock, Faculty of Law, University of New South Wales; Marty Branagan, Lecturer, Peace Studies, University of New England; Bertram Jenkins Senior Lecturer, Peace Studies, UNE; Irene Dountney, City of Sydney Councillor; Multicultural Disability Advocacy Association of NSW

To add your name or your organisation email irintoul [at]

Download a printable version of the open letter at this link

[1] For example, “Gillard in talks with E Timor leader to establish processing centre for asylum-seekers”, The Australian online,

[2] “Refugees in Indonesia call for speed up in processing of asylum seeker requests”, AM, December 16, 2010,

[3] “NZ happy to discuss details of Gillard plan”, Sydney Morning Herald, July 7, 2010,

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