to the Submission Index
Submission to the National
Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention from
Marist Refugee Office
no greater sorrow on earth than the loss of one's native land"
shifted by restless winds, refugees spill today across the globe. They
constitute a Fourth World, one whose inhabitants have no representation
and over which they have no control."
"The Quality of Mercy"
that the Church carries our extensive relief efforts on behalf of refugees,
especially in recent years, should not be a source of surprise to anyone.
Indeed this is an integral part of the Church's mission in the world."
Pope John Paul II
- Lenten message 1990
Pacific Solution is not "pacific" in the sense of "peaceful"
nor is it a just or long-term solution in response to the arrival of asylum
seekers into the northern waters of Australia.
The Australian government
has, opportunistically and in keeping with its growing reputation in the
South Pacific as a "bully boy", made use of the parlous situation
in Nauru and its peoples and the corruption, complex situation and needs
of PNG to reduce the "burden" of this so-called "problem".
It has done this at great cost to its reputation as a country of compassion
and a fair go. It has flaunted the UN Convention on Refugees, one to which
it is a signatory. It is also spending enormous amounts of money for relatively
few people who could easily be accommodated here in Australia and who
could, as so many others who came here in the past have, add so much to
our vitality and future. The real financial burden to the taxpayer of
Australia may never be known.
Sadly it seems there
is still a majority - just how big is uncertain - of Australians who support
mandatory detention of asylum seekers arriving here without documentation.
They appear to be unconcerned about the squalid financial inducements
offered to the Republic of Nauru and the Government of PNG. Also, they
seem unconcerned about the implications for all Australian citizens, not
just asylum seekers, of the precipitous rush to introduce laws retroactively,
which are both harsh and punitive in regard to the asylum seekers, and
to put in place exclusion zones. The recent outburst by Phillip Ruddock
against the judiciary suggests that the citizens of Australia should be
concerned. One letter to the editor stated:
of law requires that government should be in accordance with fixed rules
which are intelligible, stable, applied equally and transparently by
unbiased, disinterested decision makers, supervised by an independent
legislation that reactively overturns court decisions to prevent one
class of people having access to judicial review is utterly inimical
to the rule of law.
When the rule
of law is thrown out the window, society is left with the type of
anarchy that has been seen in the detention centre riots."
Concerned for the
welfare of these detainees held in the detention camps in Nauru and Manus,
especially in regard to their legal rights, their right to spiritual and
pastoral ministry and their right for proper and adequate care, Caritas
Australia and JRS endeavoured to gain access to the centres by way of
official requests to the appropriate government agencies. All such requests
were refused. Although a very detailed report was made available by John
Pace, who visited Nauru on behalf of Amnesty International, it was agreed
that, if possible, an unofficial visit should be made to gather further
information on the conditions of the detainees and to see what, if anything,
could be done to address these concerns.
In consultation with
the writer of this report representing the Marist Fathers Refugee Office,
Caritas Australia agreed to sponsor an unofficial attempt to visit both
camps on behalf of Caritas Australia and JRS.
At the same time
Caritas Australia requested that a consultation be carried out with representatives
of the Catholic Church and associated agencies and NGOs in the Pacific
region to determine their views in regard to the Pacific Solution.
In response to the
Terms of Reference in regard to this assessment and consultation, two
Draft Interim Reports were written, as it were on the move, because of
the urgency to provide information and advice to Caritas as it prepared
a submission to the Australian Parliamentary Inquiry on the Pacific Solution.
This report will
recapitulate some of the more salient issues mentioned in those reports
and include information regarding the subsequent visits to the detention
camp on Manus Island and refugee camps in Vanimo and near Kiunga on the
Also, although not
specifically requested, I will include a report on the situation in the
Solomon Islands. The civil strife and serious breakdown of law and order
in the Solomons has resulted in major dislocation and displacement of
Visit to Nauru March 18 -
The Republic of Nauru
is a small island in the Western Pacific with a population of about 7,000
who live on the narrow-green coastal perimeter occupying about one-third
of the island. The rest of the island is a desolate moonscape ? a legacy
of the years of phosphate mining.
Nauru has become
an economic and social basket case beset with critical and perhaps intractable
problems. Among these are:
- Few, if any, sustainable
- High unemployment,
especially youth unemployment;
- High incidence
of poor health among the people ? Nauran's have the second-highest incidence
of diabetes in the world;
- Failed investments
on monies earned from the now depleted stocks of phosphate;
- Decaying social
services and infrastructures.
Nauru to the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee on 20 February 2002 in these
is in an increasingly untenable economic situation which presents a
real threat to the availability of basic health, education, power and
water supplies for the population of Nauru. Australian development assistance
to Nauru is directly targeted at these key areas."
The Australian Government,
for its own questionable motives, made an offer the Nauran Government
was unable or unwilling to refuse. According to the AusAid Rep. on the
is picking up the tab for most of the above essential services."
The contents of the
agreement between the governments of Australia and Nauru in regard to
the setting up of the detention camp on the island remain secret. What
is clear is the difficulty in gaining access, firstly to the island and
then to the camp once on the island. I was given a transit visa, but required
a guarantee of accommodation before landing.
Accessing the camp
is not as daunting as it is here in the detention camps of Australia.
There is only a single perimeter fence and a boom gate guards the entrance.
No searches are made, but the guard at the entrance will challenge all
those attempting to enter. Permission to visit can be granted only by
the IOM Head of Mission, Cy Winter, or his deputy, Luiz Vieria. (As I
write this report, an Australian woman is attempting to gain access to
the camp by responding to an invitation from one of the detainees to visit
him. Her success or otherwise should be known in a few days.)
Because I had received
from an NGO in the States called Counterpart International, who in turn
had received a direct request from IOM Geneva for a medical back-up team
for the Pacific detention camps, I was given permission by Cy Winter to
enter both camps to look at the medical facilities and meet with the current
medical team caring for the needs of the detainees. One of the interpreters,
an Afghan-Australian, who came to Australia in 1984 at the time of the
Russian invasion of Afghanistan, was appointed by Cy Winter to be my guide
I spent about 2½
hours in, what is known as, the "Top Side Camp", which at the
time of my visit had a population of about 800 Afghans. Two weeks prior
to my visit the two camps on the island were reorganised according to
nationality. The majority, being Afghans, went to the larger camp, the
"Top Side Camp", and the others, made up of Iraqis, Iranians
and Sri Lankans, in total about 350, were housed in what is known as the
"State House Camp". This move was, in hindsight, a preparation
for the announcement of the determination of their cases due out two weeks
after I had been there. We now know that of the 800 Afghans, only seven
were deemed to be refugees according to the UN Convention. More of that
I spent most of my
time talking with groups and individuals, either in their dongas or as
we walked around looking at the camp facilities. Most of the time I did
not need the services of my interpreter because of the fluency in English
of many of the detainees. (There is an English conversation program as
part of the education program in the camp and 22 of the English teachers
But 2½ hours
in the Top Side Camp and about an hour in the State House Camp was not
really sufficient time to do an in-depth assessment. However, from my
past experience of working with refugees, I am able to offer credible
interpretations of what I witnessed and the stories I heard.
Using the issues
to be explored as listed in the Terms of Reference, I make the following
1. Level and quality
of legal and other support services that currently exist for detainees
There was no evidence
that any of the detainees had, at any time, been given access to independent
legal advice before or after the initial interview, which is all that
they had received up until the time of my visit. This was confirmed by
the detainees themselves.
(Before leaving for
Nauru, an Australian lawyer prepared a comprehensive document outlining
the basic legal rights of asylum seekers and refugees in regard to Australian
law and also in regard to the UN Convention on Refugees. I was able to
pass a copy of this document to one of the leaders of the camp, together
with a form that could be filled in by any detainee requesting legal advice
from Jeremy Moore and Associates ? the solicitors who have been working
in the Woomera Detention Camp. Jeremy's office is based in Adelaide. Since
returning to Australia I have received one such document duly signed and
dated, which I have passed on to Jeremy for action.)
of the needs of detainees
When the detainees
first arrived in Nauru, the living conditions were appalling. As recent
as two months before my visit, raw sewerage lay in pools in parts of the
camp. However, to the credit of IOM, significant improvements in the living
conditions had been made, including the installation of two state-of-the-art
sewerage systems, new housing accommodation for the people in Top Side
Camp and demountables for the education programs built. Nevertheless the
camp is a camp, a barren, dusty compound overlooking an even more desolate
and barren landscape, the so-called pinnacles left behind after the extraction
of super phosphate.
Medical care is certainly
adequate, with a medical team of five doctors and seven nurses. There
are two clinics in the Top Side Camp, one for ordinary medical needs and
the other for women's needs. Serious cases are taken to the local hospital
and, when necessary, to Australia for treatment.
Both camps boast
excellent kitchen facilities that provide top-class meals three times
a day. Key staff are mostly from Australia with support staff recruited
from among the detainees. If anything, I had a sense that over provision
of food may have been an issue.
to be adequate to the extent that traditional clothing is worn by both
men and women. However, because of the critical shortage of water, washing
these clothes is a major daily task. At the time of my visit the flush
toilets were without water, a cause of serious concern to the detainees.
(Obviously the planning of the camp, especially the toilets, was done
by Australians without consultation. So instead of installing the more
practicable, easily cleanable and sturdy squat toilets, the pedestal type
were installed. In one block they had placed wooden planks on top of the
toilets with appropriate cutouts so that the pedestals could be used in
of other church agencies & NGOs could assist
(i) In Nauru
All attempts to make
contact with an NGO representative nominated by another NGO Rep from Nauru
proved futile. There was no evidence that any NGO in Nauru is, in any
way, engaged directly with the detainees.
With regard to the
church, the resident parish priest, an elderly expatriate German with
experience in PNG and who is not well, has permission to visit the camps
and provides Mass for the few Christians there. How frequently I am not
sure. The three Sisters, all of whom are OLSH from Kiribati, help him
in this ministry, but again it is very minimal and there is no planned
program. In both camps temporary Mosques have been erected and presumable
leaders from among the Muslim community are chosen to lead them in prayer.
(ii) Outside Nauru
Given the isolation
of Nauru and the difficulty of access, long-term spiritual counselling
and pastoral ministries in the camps would be difficult to sustain. Identifying
what kind of ministry and counselling is needed would call for a small
team to spend time in the camps making the assessment.
4. The legal situation
for detainees under Nauru
There is a strong
suggestion that in accepting these detainees in Nauru the government of
Nauru has breached its own Constitution and Bill of Rights. This needs
to be tested in a court of law either in Nauru or internationally. I have
my doubts as to whether any local lawyer will take up their case.
of the Impact of the Detainees on Nauru and its Peoples
There is very little
social interaction between the detainees and the people of Nauru and the
size of the camps do not radically impact on the living space of the people,
so social impact is minimal, at least for the moment. Each afternoon the
Deputy Head of Mission takes about 30 detainees down to the local enclosed
harbour for swimming. Many of the locals gather, mostly to look, but some
do join them in the water. Volley ball games have been arranged between
the detainees and the Nauruans, most of which are won by the visitors.
With the installation
of the state-of-the-art sewerage systems, the environmental damage is
also minimised. However, water remains the critical problem for all who
live on the island. There is the suggestion that Australia will install
a new desalination plant and make it large enough, not just for the detainees,
but for the population of Nauru.
people of Nauru stand to benefit. Already the Australian Government, through
AusAid, is paying for most of the public services such as power and water.
It would seem some Nauruans are personally benefiting from the largess
of the Australian Government per kind favour of the Australian taxpayer.
There appears to
be some resentment by the locals for the good treatment of the detainees
as they see it. On balance, my sense is that the people of Nauru, because
of the many spin-offs coming from the presence of the detainees on their
small island, they are more than happy for them to stay, even though officially
the government has requested Australia to remove them by the end of May.
Given their economic desperation this deadline is not likely to be insisted
Of great importance
is the psychological wellbeing of the detainees. The uncertainty about
their future, especially in light of the recent government financial inducements
to the Afghans to return home and the unwillingness of many to do so,
will place great stress on the detainees, irrespective of whatever improvements
are made to their living conditions.
The detainees in
Nauru are well aware of what has taken place in Woomera, Port Headland
and Curtin by way of demonstrations, attempted and successful suicides
and self-mutilation. Desperate people made even more desperate by factors
beyond their control will take desperate action. One only has to speculate
what could happen with 400 very resourceful male Afghans breaking out
of the low-security camp on the island of Nauru.
Visit to Manus Island, PNG
Before visiting Manus
and as part of the Pacific Consultation, I visited Kavieng where I met
with Bishop Ambrose, the author of the very strongly worded statement
entitled "Gift from Australia" in which he condemns Australia's
so-called Pacific Solution. He points out that PNG has more than enough
of its own problems, including the West Papuan Refugees along the border.
It is interesting to note that during the time of my visit to PNG, over
100 children died of measles mainly because of the lack of vaccines. Inadequate
medical supplies throughout the country because of lack of funds is just
one of the major problems facing PNG.
The Bishop has been
criticised by some of the local people because of his strong stand. They
feel that the financial benefits for the local people, given the fact
that Manus is one of the poorest provinces in PNG, justify the co-operation
of the PNG Government with the Australian Government in its Pacific Solution.
The detention camp
is located in the Naval Base at Lombrum on the Island of Manus. The base
is in the parish of Papitalai of which Fr Justin Aminio is parish priest.
Two rather lengthy discussions with Fr Justin suggest that he, like his
Bishop, is opposed to the forced detention of people that have committed
no crime. He has spoken out strongly against the continuation of this
policy. He, like his Bishop, has been criticised and indeed warned. He
was also blamed for taking Evan Williams, from the television program
Foreign Correspondent, onto the base and was, at the time of my visit,
expecting a letter forbidding him henceforth access to the base where
he says Mass for the Naval Personnel who are Catholics. He told me he
would vigorously challenge this exclusion. In fact, it was Fr Morris from
the parish of Lorengau who accompanied Evan onto the base.
No-one, not even
the chaplain to the base, is allowed to go inside the detention camp,
which is set up like an isolation camp on the base itself.
I attempted to go
to the base by car along the only road that leads to it. However, I was
stopped and turned back at the roadblock, which is about a kilometre short
of the base and manned by the PNG Defence Force. This was set up after
the visit by Evan Williams and the screening of his critical television
program on Foreign Correspondent. The only other access to the base, which
occupies a peninsula, is by sea.
I did manage to speak
to the IOM Head of Mission on two occasions. However, my offer of medical
assistance that had been so successful in Nauru failed in Manus. A third
attempt to make an appointment to meet him was rebuffed through his secretary
on the score that he was too busy.
Through the conversations
I had with [names deleted], I learned that in return for their co-operation,
the PNG Government is receiving a full upgrading of The Base. The hospital,
officers' mess, kitchen facility and houses for Naval Personnel families
have all been upgraded and improved. The hospital is open to not only
naval personnel, but to the local people, which is significant given the
fact that the hospital in the capital, Lorengau, which is 45 minutes by
car, is without water. A recent enquiry came to the conclusion that the
hospital should be closed until such time as the water becomes available.
The people living
in the area of the base and on the base are more than happy with their
windfall. It is providing employment for many as guards, cooks, cleaners
and office workers. They are jealously guarding their bonanza.
Concern has been
expressed by some politicians, and indeed a well-known lawyer is preparing
a case against the government, for like Nauru, it seems that this detention
of people who have committed no crime is against the nations Bill of Rights.
Also it is possibly against the criminal code, which states that anyone
who is arrested for an alleged crime cannot be held for more than six
months unless the person is charged. These detainees have been there more
than seven months now.
Although I am uncertain,
given the isolation of the camp and the cavalier manner in which the PNG
Defence Force and the guards at the camp reject any legitimate request
for access, I doubt if any lawyers have been able to give legal advice
to the relatively small number being held in Manus Detention Camp.
As mentioned earlier,
events have somewhat overtaken this report in that a significant number
of those on Manus have been determined to be genuine refugees. However,
no decision has been taken as to which country will receive them, and
Australia has said it will not take all of them, if any.
The denial of access
to the people in the camp, especially for pastoral care by church representatives,
is indeed a denial of a basic human right, one that not even the Japanese
on the Thai/Burma Railway during World War II denied the chaplains. They
were able to minister to the POWs in spite of the brutality that they
experienced. What does this say about the Australian and PNG governments,
as they collude in a solution that is bereft of humanity, compassion and
fundamental human rights.
1. The tyranny
of distance and the isolation of the two detention camps that make up
Australia's Pacific Solution, place a heavy burden and a big obstacle
to any NGO or legal agency concerned for the wellbeing of the people
held in these camps. However, these difficulties should not prevent
ongoing and relentless efforts through collaboration with interested
NGOs, lobbying and public awareness programs to keep before the minds
of the Australian people our government's policies and its effects on
the lives of innocent people.
2. Caritas Australia
might consider sponsoring a gathering of all interested NGOs and other
community groups who are working directly or indirectly for the detainees,
to work out strategies whereby we might, collectively and individually,
work at providing legal assistance, counselling and pastoral care for
3. Because the
length of time the detainees will be held in these camps is uncertain,
consideration should be given to how small teams could be sent on a
rotation basis to help in some basic training to provide skills that
will benefit both the detainee and the society to which they go, whether
that be back home or some third country. The time wasted in our detention
camps is a scandal, especially when there are so many community-based
groups who would willingly volunteer their skills and time
4. According to
its Constitution, IOM is prohibited from participating in involuntary
return. Therefore, a close monitor needs to be put in place as the Australian
Government proceeds in its publicly stated policy of offering financial
inducements for Afghans to return home to what Phillip Ruddock suggests,
after a 12-hour visit to Kabul, is a relatively safe homeland. This
is in spite of the recent news about the ongoing fight against the Taliban,
and that the IOM Sponsored Food Program for Children in Afghanistan
will have to be cut back from 250,000 to 50,000 because of a lack of
funds and difficulty in carrying out the program.
IOM must ensure
that those returning to their country of origin do so voluntarily, not
just by a statement, but must do so by each individual signing a "Declaration
for Voluntary Return", which must be written in both English and
in the signatory's language. One of the clauses in this statement says:
due consideration and entirely of my own free will I wish to return".
Already there are
indications that the Australian Government may use force. IOM must be
held to its Constitution.
5. If permission
is granted to teams going to Nauru for education programs, consideration
should be given to the purchase or rental of suitable accommodation.
6. In the same
way that access can be gained to the detention camps in Australia through
invitations from the detainees themselves, consideration should be given
to personal visits by representatives of NGOs on a regular basis so
as to continue to monitor the reality inside these camps, particularly
The Pacific Consultation
The first part of
the Pacific Consultation, which included meetings with Bishop Soane Foliaki
of Tonga, Archbishop Mataca, Bishop of Fiji, and Caritas Partners, is
contained in my earlier reports submitted to Caritas Australia. This report
will cover subsequent visits to Bishops in the Solomon Islands, PNG and
The Solomon Islands
Because of the dramatic
and devastating developments that have occurred in recent years in the
Solomon Islands, I will add a separate section to this report offering
an update on the situation there and the impact that the crisis has had
on the people of the Solomons in terms of displacement of people, the
breakdown of law and order and the consequent impact on the economy.
As part of the Pacific
Consultation, I visited with Archbishop Adrian Smith of the Archdiocese
of Honiara and Bishop Gerry Loft, Bishop of the Auki Diocese. Understandably,
both men were preoccupied with the developments in their respective dioceses.
In the case of Archbishop
Adrian, he was confronted by a band of militia who were slaughtering the
church cattle on his property and was threatened with an automatic rifle.
A long "Our Father", and the cool head of the group's leader,
probably saved his life, but not the life of the man who held the gun
to his head. The young man was found dead the following day, probably
from an overdose, but in a land where nothing happens by accident, everything
has a cause, the Bishop's manna or karma or power has been greatly enhanced.
He also went public in the local newspaper condemning the militia and
other groups who were robbing people returning from selling their produce
at the markets. Although he did not mention anyone by name, he received
a phone call from one militia group leader demanding compensation of 10,000
Solomon Island dollars for being publicly maligned.
Gerry Loft, who lives
very simply and with very few modern conveniences, has been robbed 13
times in spite of steel reinforcement rods on every window.
Both Bishops are
very much aware of the Pacific Solution and would willingly support any
initiative taken by the Federation at the time of its meeting in Rabaul
in terms of a collective public statement condemning the policy.
Bishop of Kavieng, Bishop
Bishop of Kavieng's
statement of 13 March 2002, clearly articulates his opposition to the
During our meeting,
he reiterated his position and showed me a letter he received from a woman
in Brisbane who had read his statement and thanked him for it. She expressed
her shame as an Australian for the policy of the Australian Government.
Bishop Cesare Bonivento
of Vanimo and Bishop Gilles Cote both expressed their concern about the
Pacific Solution and would certainly endorse any statement that came from
the Bishops' Federation in regard to this matter. Bishop Cote believed
that it was an essential item of the agenda for this meeting.
On my return to Australia,
I contacted Archbishop Frank Carroll, mentioning my consultation with
the Bishops of the Pacific. He requested a summary of the main points
relating to the two camps that would help inform him and any discussion
that surfaced during the meeting. I faxed him two condensed pages giving
an outline for which he was grateful.
As I write this report,
some days after the conclusion of the meeting in Rabaul, I have no word
of any statement regarding the Pacific Solution made by the Bishops at
the Federation Meeting. However, we wait in hopeful expectation.
The reality of the
Solomon Islands is deeply disturbing. Without wishing to sound alarmist,
the violence that has wracked the islands since 1998, continues to erupt
and threatens the Townsville Peace Agreement signed in late 2000.
It may be helpful
to briefly outline some of the key facts in regard to the breakdown of
law and order in the Solomon Islands. The following is an extract from
a report prepared by Bishop Loft.
" The people
of Guadalcanal were the first to rebel after waiting for more than 20
years for their grievances to be responded to - in much the same way
as in Fiji the people of Guadalcanal felt that they were losing control
over their own lands and resources of the land to politicians and the
people from Malaita who had come to live in Guadalcanal over the past
They began to
drive the Malaitan people back to their island - as many as 30,000 were
forced to return. However the Malaita Eagle Force supported by the Police
Force, most of whom were from Malaita, rowdily retaliated. So you have
the two groups, the Malaita Eagle Force who control Honiara the capital
and a small perimeter around it and the Isutambu Freedom Fighters who
control the rest of Guadalcanal.
As a result
of this conflict the MEF (Malaita Eagle Force) has an agenda that included:
1. 1. the
overthrow of the legal government in which they were successful
2. 2. the
establishment of a Malaitan power enclave in the more productive area
on Guadalcanal adjacent to Honiara and in Honiara itself. In this
they have been largely successful
3. 3. the
control of the police and field force. In this they have been successful
and still control these organizations and
4. 4. the
amassing of personal wealth by the leaders. In this they have been
very successful corrupting the whole compensation process and administration
of government funds given by overseas bodies.
is ineffective and bankrupt. There is no money for physical infrastructure
and payment of civil servants, teachers, nurses and police officers
is irregular and often inadequate.
The return of
high power weapons to the police armoury has been sporadic and ineffective.
There remain approximately 500 automatic, military style weapons at
large in the hands of ex-militants who are intimidating the local populace
and the whole law and order situation is precarious. The deadline for
the return of all weapons is 31 May. No-one really expects this to happen
although the Bishops of Oceania and Australia meeting in Rabaul as I
write have made a special plea for all the guns to be handed in and
for normalcy to return to the Solomons. Most developmental projects
has collapsed and local rural people have virtually no means of earning
any serious income. Youth are increasingly frustrated and unemployed.
have changed markedly as they see the corruption and "ripping off"
of millions by elected officials and others in positions of trust. Many
are now trying to get exorbitant amounts for any service or work done
or any use of local materials.
house-breaking remain endemic in Honiara and Auki. Three Guadalcanal
terrorists each with their own group remain at large and are terrorising
the people in the rural areas of that island.
Roads are by
and large impassable and travel to and from Honiara is dangerous and
very difficult. Most travel has to be by canoe as there are no planes
flying to Guadalcanal airfields. Even canoe travel can be dangerous
because of shooting and the likelihood of interception.
On Malaita most
roads are impassable for long periods of time and the conditions of
these roads is deteriorating quickly, bridges collapsing, washouts and
slides on the road frequent. On Malaita canoe travel is becoming the
norm rather than the exception for areas previously connected by road.
But this will become increasingly difficult for many because of the
cost of gasoline for the outboard. Many will have to go back to the
For further information
in regard to the grim and disturbing situation in the Solomon Islands,
see Appendix 1 attached - an article by John Roughan.
It was interesting
to learn that people from the West Solomons, ethnically and linguistically
linked to the people of the southern part of Bougainville, were crossing
over to Bougainville and then on to PNG to the extent that it has been
mentioned in parliament. The people of Bougainville are being reminded
of how they were helped during their time of crisis by the people in the
West Solomons and asking for equal consideration now.
West Papua Refugees
The background to
the presence of West Papuans living in camps inside the border of PNG
is well known to the gentle reader. However, for the sake of completeness
I will mention briefly the history of these border crossers, as they are
often referred to.
The so-called New
York Agreement was signed by the Indonesians and the Dutch at the UN Headquarters
on 15 August 1962. This led to what is now known as an utter sham, the
exercise of free choice in 1968 by 1026 so-called representatives of the
total population of West Papua. The then UN Secretary General, Uh Thant,
reported to the General Assembly that:
descent, all the enlarged councils pronounced themselves in favour of
the territory remaining with Indonesia."
This was a blatant
misrepresentation. Since that time the population has almost doubled by
the policy of transmigration from other islands, particularly Java. Also,
since the so-called Act of Free Choice, over 100,000 have died as a result
of Indonesian oppression. That is the official figure. Unofficially some
estimate the figure as high as 800,000. In 1984 over 10,000 West Papuans
fled across the border into PNG and settled along the Fly River. In 1987
they were given the choice by the PNG Government to either return home
or go to another camp to be cared for by UNHCR. Only about 3000 accepted
the offer and went to the camp set up by UNHCR at East Awin. Some returned
home, but most remained without status along the Fly River.
At the time of my
visit to Kiunga there were still about 5000-6000 West Papuans living in
16 camps on the Fly River and on the border. There were about 2700 in
what is still referred to as the "East Awin Camp", but the UNHCR
withdrew from the camp in 2000 once the PNG Government had given those
there permanent residency in PNG with the right to work and travel. Those
living in East Awin do so on land that was provided by the Government,
but which has become very depleted. West Papuans have begun to encroach
on land not included in the original package, causing growing friction
between them and the locals. Also, during the time when UNHCR was responsible
for the refugees, a sense of dependency developed which has been transferred
to the Catholic Church, also causing some friction. The newly-appointed
parish priest, an Indonesian of the De Monfort Congregation, had his house
broken into while I was there and lost about 500 Kina worth of goods.
Bishop Gilles Cote,
the Sisters and lay volunteers are very proactive in providing basic assistance
in the area of medical care and social programs, such as hygiene and health,
together with spiritual and pastoral ministry.
The leaders in the
camp affiliated or members with OPM are committed to the Independence
Movement. My short conversations with them suggest a strong passion to
pursue this, but it seems they lack understanding in regard to the geopolitical
realities that impact on the region and which would no doubt make their
struggle all the more difficult and violent. Their Independence Movement
suffered a terrible blow when their leader, Theys Eluay, was abducted,
tortured and then murdered in November 2001. It seems this was done by
so-called "rogue elements" in the Indonesian Army ? always a
convenient scapegoat group ? the rogue FBI agent, the rogue CIA ? to deflect
The future of these
camps along the Fly River is uncertain, but if they are all similar to
the one that I visited three hours down The Fly, there is a sense of permanency
about them. However Kiunga is the focal point and source of trade. Its
future is dependent upon the Ok Tedi Mine, which I learned has an expected
future of nine years. If the camps last that long, significant problems
could very well develop in terms of social disruption and tension between
the locals and the West Papuans.
In the meantime,
the very proactive Bishop includes all 16 camps in the pastoral planning
of the diocese. His image of the diocese is one of intersecting circles
rather than hierarchical pyramid, with him, like a satellite, circling
and engaging with all.
More recently, a
small number of refugees from West Papua arrived in Vanimo and, on land
provided by local Bishop Cesare Bonivento on the edge of town, have established
a very well-constructed village with extensive gardens, the produce of
which helps bring in income for them. The Bishop does provide some basic
food, such as tinned fish and rice. In their enthusiasm for gardening,
they have encroached on land belonging to the local government. This could
become a cause of friction and already the Bishop has asked them to move
off this land.
Just before I arrived
in Vanimo, the Bishop received word that UNHCR was to come and interview
these West Papuans, which hasn't been done since their arrival two or
three years earlier, to determine their status. The Bishop believes that
those who are determined to be refugees will be sent to East Awin (the
Bishop still thinks that UNHCR is responsible for those living there).
Those who are determined
not to be refugees will be returned home. The Bishop is concerned for
their safety and wants help to set up what he calls an "Umbrella
Program" or a "Collaborative Program" with the church in
West Papua so that the returnees safety can be monitored and assistance
be given to them when they do return.
He has also requested
help from Caritas Australia and/or JRS to provide some legal advice prior
to the interviews by UNHCR to brief the West Papuans on their legal rights.
Just before I arrived,
some disaffected locals burnt down a government office and the local police
had gone on strike because of the failure of the central government to
improve the conditions of the police barracks, which had become almost
uninhabitable. The law and order breakdown, which is evident in Port Moresby
and the High Lands, is indeed spreading.
As Bishop Ambrose
pointed out, PNG has its own problems and needs to address them before
it accepts Australia's problems.
Australians in 10,
15 or even 20 years time, but hopefully sooner, will look back on this
policy of the Pacific Solution with shame and regret. We will recognise
it for what it is a xenophobic fear-ridden reaction, well served by obscene
political opportunism in keeping with the now discredited White Australia
in her book The Battle For God, writes about suffering and devastation
experienced by the exile and, by extension, the refugee in these words:
is a spiritual as well as a physical dislocation. The world of the exile
is wholly unfamiliar and, therefore, without meaning. A violent uprooting,
which takes away all normal props, breaks up our world, snatches us
forever from places that are saturated in memories crucial to our identity,
and plunges us permanently in an alien environment, can make us feel
that our very existence has been jeopardised. When exile is also associated
with human cruelty, it raises urgent questions about the problem of
evil in a world supposedly created by a just an benevolent God."
Jim Carty sm
Marist Refugee Office
1 Mary Street
Hunters Hill NSW 2110
6 June 2002
Updated 10 October 2002.