There are already some 8000 refugees from West Papua living across the
border in Papua New Guinea relocation camps. Repeated assertions by the
Australian Government of a respect for the territorial integrity of
Indonesia and the shunting off to island refugee camps of any West
Papuans who reach Australia is not going to prevent the issue of West
Papua continuing to be a difficult issue for this country.
When Australia finally accepted in the early 1960s that West Papua was
a part of Indonesia, our colonial administrators in Papua New Guinea
paid scant regard to international refugee conventions. Instructions
went out to patrol officers in the border regions of the TPNG to close
the border and “orient its peoples eastwards”. The refugees who
periodically crossed the border (often with the Indonesian army in hot
pursuit) were sent back.
For the government of an independent Papua New Guinea, dealing with
refugees is not so simple. There is no wish to annoy a larger and more
powerful neighbour. Most people crossing the border are classified as
economic refugees and are sent back. Like Australia, PNG opposes any
calls for an independent West Papua yet a shared Melanesian heritage
makes for continued sympathy to the educated elite fleeing political
After an influx of asylum seekers in 1984, PNG did sign the 1951
Refugee Convention, albeit with some significant reservations covering
wage-earning employment, housing, public education, freedom of
movement, refugees unlawfully in the country of refuge, expulsion and
naturalisation. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
(UNHCR) has an office in Port Moresby to encourage the establishment of
a formal refugee protection framework and to monitor further
displacements from Papua.
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The UNHCR has helped the PNG Government draw
up contingency plans to handle any mass arrival of asylum seekers on
the scale of 1984 when 12,000 people crossed the border following the
killing of an independence advocate. Some of those who arrived in that
influx 20 years ago are still living in official and unofficial camps.
The English version of the Indonesian Tempo magazine reported earlier
this month that “five Indonesian battleships are patrolling the sea
border with Australia, preventing the flight of Papuans, 600 of whom
are ready to emigrate to this neighbouring country.” The report said
that after the Indonesian Military (TNI) began to keep a close watch on
the sea border, asylum seekers began preparing other routes of flight.
It quoted Edison Warom (a Free West Papua activist living in Australia)
as saying that the remaining asylum seekers are likely to cross over to
Papua New Guinea from where “they will continue their journey to
The plight of the 8000 or so refugees from the Indonesian province of
Papua now in PNG camps has received little publicity in Australia. That
will change given the fuss that the Indonesian Government has made
about Australia accepting 42 refugees. The Catholic Church is the
principal provider of assistance to the PNG refugees and can expect a
more receptive audience for its pleas on their behalf given the way
that this issue is developing.
What will be the reaction of Australian talk back radio, I wonder, when
the following report from Tempo gets the publicity it deserves:
Indonesia-Australia relations continue to heat up. Last Monday,
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono made a stern statement. He voiced
his disappointment over Australia’s decision to grant temporary visas
to 42 citizens of West Papua. “The granting of the visas is not
realistic and is one-sided,” he said at the State Palace.
The President considers that this visa case could disrupt Indonesia’s sovereignty and dignity.
Not only in the matter of the asylum seekers, Yudhoyono also announced
his displeasure at a cartoon printed by The Weekend Australian
newspaper that depicted him “humping” a Papuan. He expects Australia to
not take the matter lightly. “There are many wars in the world
triggered by small things,” he said.