West Papua – asylum seekers and lessons from our history

The arrival in Australia of 43 asylums seekers from West Papua not only provides a test of whether there has been any substantive culture change in the Immigration Department, it also provides the best prospect for a long time of some significant public attention being paid to what is happening in West Papua.

Despite some extreme control measures put in place by DIMIA to prevent photographs or contact with the asylum seekers, there are some good aerial photos and description on the website of the Torres News (link found through subscriber email of www.crikey.com.au), as well as some information on the people aboard the asylum seeker’s outrigger canoe.

The information crackdown suggests the Immigration ‘culture change’ hasn’t got very far yet, as does the news that the asylum seekers are being sent to Christmas Island, an action which has great public cost, but no practical effect other than making it as difficult as possible for anyone – legal advisors, friends, media – to access the asylum seekers.

As the handling of Chen Yonglin’s request for political asylum showed last year, the Foreign Affairs Department has an even less inspiring culture than DIMIA when it comes to basic rights, so it will be important to keep the public spotlight on the West Papuans so ‘political sensitivities’ regarding Indonesia don’t get in the way of natural justice.

I wrote about West Papua a couple of times on my old blog site in May last year – here and here – and have spoken on it publicly on other occasions over the years.

I believe the current Indonesian government has done a very good job in advancing democracy and human rights in that country in the face of some very difficult challenges. Indeed I’ve been sufficiently positive about them as to cop a little bit of flack from some human rights advocates. But regardless of how difficult the challenges facing the Indonesian administration are, the stark fact still remains that there are serious human rights abuses continuing to be inflicted on West Papuans by some in the Indonesian military.

This cannot be ignored – whether for the 43 asylum seekers, or just as importantly for those who remain directly at risk in West Papua. As this article from last year by Alan Ramsey shows, the political sensitivities in being seen to highlight this fact extends to the ALP just as much to the Coalition. Labor’s overriding concern about relations with the Indonesian administration was key in Australia’s cowardly acquiescence to years of abuses and slaughter occurring in East Timor – coincidently reported in some detail again in today’s papers.

The Torres News piece also quotes a representative of the Australian West Papua Association saying “the sea journey was undertaken because the usual means of escaping the Province of West Papua – namely crossing the land border into Papua New Guinea – has become increasingly difficult as Indonesian authorities crack down on the practice.”

This would seem to be confirmed by this report from 2004 on the website of the West Papuan Action Network in Canada, which gives a first hand account of one such escape:

“These days, the only possible escape route to PNG these days is by sea. For the past four years the land borders have been heavily guarded by the Indonesian army. And since 2001, there have been many mysterious shootings in the border zone.”

Whilst I’ve been very critical about the current government putting their own political priorities ahead of the risks of persecution faced by individuals, it is worth acknowledging that this is a common theme among Australian governments stretching back decades.

There is a book by historian, Klaus Neumann, called “Refuge Australia: Australia’s Humanitarian Record” which goes into this history in some details.

Indeed,the arrival of 43 West Papua asylum seekers highlights the importance of remembering historical lessons about refugees from West Papua and the key role they played in the history of Australian responses to uninvited asylum seekers and the situations they flee.

For example try these quotes from Klaus Neumann:

Refugees were housed on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea ‘as a temporary answer to an uncomfortable problem’ and the refugees were ‘isolated by security and disconsolately viewing an impossible future’.

These quotes come from an article that was published in 1969 concerning fifty-nine refugees from West Papua, who fled to Papua and New Guinea between 1966 and 1968. According to Neumann, in late 1968, the Territory’s Australian administration moved these refugees to Manus to prevent them from participating in anti-Indonesian politics in Papua and New Guinea. They were required to live in the accommodation provided for them, but they were not housed behind barbed wire. They lived in houses rather than in shipping containers, were allowed to seek employment and their children attended government or mission schools.

Another instructive quote comes from a directive to his Department by the Attorney-General in response to possible asylum claims by West Papuans: “(we) should not be too infected with the British notion of being a home for the oppressed” – not the current Attorney-General, but one from 1962, Sir Garfield Barwick (later to become Chief Justice of the High Court, just to make it even better).

This was at a time when Papua New Guinea was an Australian Territory, and West Papuans refugees were fleeing directly into PNG. Even though PNG was part of Australia, residents there had no automatic entitlement to enter mainland Australia (and were unlikely to get permission in the days when the White Australia policy still operated), so any West Papuan refugees who were accepted would only be able to stay in PNG. Despite this, considerations regarding our relationship with Indonesia and the worry of a potential wave of refugees into PNG were as strong then as now. (As Australia was aware of the persecution being inflicted on West Papuans even then, it’s not surprising there was a worry that there could be large numbers of refugees)

Unlike now, Australia did not actually have any legal obligation to West Papuan asylum seekers at that time, as we had not ratified the Optional Protocol to the Refugee Convention. The original 1951 Convention only applied to people who had become refugees as a result of events prior to 1951. The Optional Protocol – extending the operation of the Convention to current events – came into force in 1967, but Australia did not ratify it until 1973, in large part because of its implications in Papua.

For more details on this history, read this article by Neumann from 2002, or his evidence last year to the Senate Committee inquiry into the Chen Yonglin defection (start from page 40)

For even greater detail, this link (large pdf file) goes to a lecture given in 2002 by Klaus Neumann. The lecture is entitled “Refugees on Our Doorstep: West Papuan Refugees in Papua and New
Guinea, 1962–69
“. It’s 12 pages long, but I think it’s well worth a read. Knowing our history can play a big role in informing what actions should or shouldn’t be taken in the future.

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  1. re post 2
    dear marilyn
    “The 53 Vietnamese who spent 2 years on that hell hole cost taxpayers over $50 million and they were refugees all along”.

    what a lot of tripe you have never been there have you get you facts straight .i have seen the place .

  2. red crab

    I’m not sure which bit of that quote you disagree with – maybe you are disputing that the Christmas Island detention centre is a “hell hole”?

    Certainly the 53 people all ended up with visas (some of them sooner than 2 years it’s true, but it took that long to finalise many of them). I couldn’t vouch for the cost of $50 million off the top of my head, but there’s no doubt that this is by far the most expensive detention centre to keep people in.

    I guess ‘hellhole-ness’ is in the eye of the beholder, and some advocates try not to use the term, as it can lead to others dismissing all concerns as nothing but emotion-driven. However, I’d have to say the current centre on Christmas Island would not be much fun to be stuck in either – certainly not for any length of time, and especially not while also trying to cope with the stress of possible deportation. The ‘room’ people have to sleep/live in is pretty tiny, and there’s only a few other common rooms for people to use.

  3. andrew.
    you are right it looks a little cramped.butyou must also take into account what condiion thease ppl were living in before they got to christmas island .its like gowing from a tin shed to a five star hotel.i also saw where the West Papuans were housed and it was not at the detention centre.its better than woomera or pt headland.it mite be of interest to look at the new centre there and see who is acctualy involved in the poject as i have sead once before i have spoken to the man in charge of all the money. he was not an australian.

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