Australia holds talks with East Timor on refugee hub

Australia will discuss the issue in Indonesia and Malaysia later in the week.

Dili: A proposed regional refugee centre in East Timor would be operational for a "very substantial period of time", Australia`s immigration minister said on Tuesday after talks with President Jose Ramos-Horta.

Chris Bowen also said Australia and East Timor had agreed to set up a working group to study proposals for such a facility, which would be run in close cooperation with the United Nations.

After the first round of direct negotiations on Australia`s proposal, the two countries agreed to consult regional transit states including Malaysia and Indonesia, and develop a detailed plan by early next year.

"The President and I understand that if there is going to be a substantial investment it wouldn`t be a short-term investment," Bowen said at a joint press conference with Ramos-Horta in Dili.

"I think the President has said very clearly that he would regard this centre as being here... for a very substantial period of time."

Ramos-Horta said at the weekend that he would not accept a "permanent" detention centre for asylum applicants on East Timorese soil.

He said on Tuesday that the question of whether the centre would be indefinite or have a "time limit" placed on its operations would be the subject of further negotiations with Australia.

He added that he was positive about the proposal, which was first raised in July by Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard amid a surge in the arrival of undocumented migrants by boat in Australian waters.

"We are looking at it positively based on human considerations, stemming from our own beliefs as a people who once fled persecution, violence and poverty," Ramos-Horta said.

"Having said that we will need to discuss with Australia, Indonesia and others a more detailed concept."

The former exile during much of Indonesia`s brutal 24-year occupation said the government would also have to consult the East Timorese people.

"If we are doing it we would want our people to embrace it and not... feel (it) was imposed on them, because the people who would come to Timor-Leste would have to feel they were welcome," he said.

East Timor, or Timor-Leste as it is formally known, has a wealth of energy resources but remains one of the poorest countries in Asia, with most people dependent on foreign aid eight years after it achieved independence.

Many lawmakers in the tiny country of around one million people have expressed opposition to the Australian proposal, but Ramos-Horta said he was confident they would eventually see its merits.

"Look at Australia -- 30 or 40 years ago Sydney was one of the most boring places on earth... Sydney changed completely because of migration. This I see as the benefit coming from human contact, human solidarity," he said.

Bowen said the centre would bring other benefits to East Timor, including economic development, capacity building and "regional engagement" -- the last point being a possible reference to Dili`s bid to join the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which includes Indonesia and Malaysia.

Thousands of asylum seekers head through Southeast Asian countries on their way to Australia every year. Many link up with people smugglers in Indonesia for the final, desperate voyage in leaky boats.

About 100 boats carrying more than 4,000 people have arrived this year, stretching facilities to the limit and exacerbating a politically sensitive issue for Gillard`s fragile Labor-led coalition.

Bowen will be discussing the issue in Indonesia and Malaysia later in the week.

Bureau Report