42 West Papuan asylum seekers get temporary Australian visas

Friday, March 24, 2006

The Morning Star Flag flying in Marrackville, Australia. March 23, 2006

The Australian government has granted temporary visas to 42 of the 43 West Papuan asylum seekers who arrived by boat in January. The group accuse the Indonesian military of "conducting genocide in their homeland." The 36 adults and seven children spent five days at sea in a traditional outrigger boat before arriving in far north Queensland's Cape York. They have been since been detained under Australia's Mandatory Detention policy.

Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone said the 42 West Papuans have been given temporary protection visas (TPV). "These people have completed their medical and character checks and will be moved into the community," she said. Most of the group are being relocated by private jet from Australia's remote immigration detention centre on Christmas Island to Melbourne. Senator Vanstone said a decision was still pending on one of the asylum seekers, as there were further specific case issues to be addressed.

However, the Indonesian government says the refugees should be sent back. Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has told Prime Minister John Howard that the group should not be given political asylum. He assures that they would not be prosecuted. Last month, Indonesia's ambassador, Hamzah Thayeb, warned that Australia's relationship with Indonesia would be affected if the Papuans were granted asylum.

A spokesman for Foreign Minister Alexander Downer dismissed suggestions that the decision would cause a rift between Australia and Jakarta. "We've got an excellent bilateral relationship with Indonesia and we wouldn't expect that any particular issue is going to bring that into question," he said. Mr Downer personally informed his Indonesian counterpart, Hassan Wirajuda, of the decision. "It's a matter of some significance between our two countries," said Mr Downer.

Indonesia has insisted that there are no human rights abuses in Papua. Djoko Susilo, a member of Indonesia's parliamentary foreign affairs commission, labelled the decision "an unfriendly gesture by the Australian Government."

Since their arrival, the 43 West Papuans have accused the Indonesian military of "genocide in their homeland," taken over by Indonesia in the 1960s after a widely disputed independence referendum. File:West-Papua-Rally Darwin2.jpg

Placard at a support rally in Darwin.
(Image missing from Commons: image; log)

Herman Wainggai, who spoke for the asylum-seekers, thanked the Australian Government and people for a fair and just decision. "We were threatened in an extremely dangerous position ... We had to flee to Australia from the intimidation of the killing and the persecution inflicted by Indonesian authorities against us," he said.

"We trust that Indonesia will act with maturity and see that the situation in West Papua is very serious and one which must be dealt with peacefully and with humanity, not by violent means," he said.

The Indonesian House of Representatives (DPR) has denounced the Australian government's decision, urging the government to send a formal protest note to the Australian government over the visas and political asylum granted to the 42 Indonesian citizens. "We question the decision to grant visas and political asylum at a time when the security situation in Papua province is tense," said member of the House Commission I for defence, foreign and information affairs Effendy Mara Sakti, of the Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDIP).

Another House Commission member, Yudy Chrisnandy of the Golkar Party, said the granting of political asylum and temporary visas was unethical and could disrupt relations between the two countries.

Amnesty International has expressed particular concern about human rights violations in Papua, but welcomed the decision. "While welcoming today's decision ... Amnesty now encourages the government to consider the plight of the Papuan refugees, as under Australia's temporary protection regime the refugees now face isolation from their families left behind and face uncertainty about their future," the organisation said in a statement. Amnesty reports of "extrajudicial executions, 'disappearances,' torture, ill-treatment and arbitrary detentions in Papua Province."

Australian Greens Senator Kerry Nettle also welcomed the decision. "The situation in West Papua is clearly very dangerous for those who assert their right to self-determination, so the decision to grant protection visas is a good one," Senator Nettle said.

West Papua have been seeking sovereignty since the United Nations handed the province to Indonesia in 1969. A spokesman for the Free West Papua Campaign, Nick Chesterfield, said the decision highlights the dire situation. "What this clearly demonstrates is that the world needs to wake up to what is happening in West Papua and start to actively look at ways of ending the sickening violence that the Indonesian military continues to inflict on the people of West Papua," Mr Chesterfield said.

"Rather than being isolated and locked up thousands of miles away on Christmas Island, these very courageous individuals can receive the support they deserve from the local community. This decision also means Australians will be able to hear first hand about the atrocities and escalating human right abuses that are unfolding in one of our closest neighbouring countries," said Mr Chesterfield.

Meanwhile, the "Morning Star" flag of West Papua was raised in Marrickville, New South Wales, by Senator Nettle and the Mayor of Marrickville, Sam Byrne. The flag, officially unrecognised by Indonesia in the West Papuan region, was raised to "urge city citizens to support self-determination for the West Papuans people."

Uniting Church minister Reverend John Barr, who recently returned from the area, warned of an "intensification of violence" and also recounted demands from protesters to have the Freeport mine and the Indonesian government held responsible for despoiling the Papuan environment. "We have heard one student was shot dead and many are badly wounded. I could hear people yelling and fleeing as my contact spoke to me on the phone from the grounds of the theological seminary," he said in a statement.

Media ban

The Jakarta Foreign Correspondents Club has stated concern that no foreign journalist has had official access to Papua in the past eighteen months. In that period there has been "a significant build-up of troops in Papua with reports of widespread displacement of civilians, arson, and arbitrary detention in the central highlands region."

Last week, Indonesian media showed police shooting directly at students on local university grounds. Authorities have not released details of casualties among the demonstrators. "I can't tell you exactly how many were shot," says Hans Magel. "In such traumatic circumstances, we ourselves are finding it difficult gathering casualty figures. The latest information we have is that 22 were seriously injured."

Indonesia has effectively maintained a ban on access to Papua for many foreign organisations since 2003. Indonesia’s Minister of Defense, Juwono Sudarsono, said in February that the government will "maintain curbs on foreign media" reporting from Papua. He is quoted as saying, "We feel that our unity and cohesion are being threatened by the presence of foreign intrusion and concerns so there is a balance between international concerns and sovereignty that we want to strike very peacefully."

Minister Sudarsono also stated that the curbs should "extend to foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and churches, whom he thought might create conflict in the province by encouraging Papuans to campaign on issues of human rights." He stated that he feared reporters could be "used as a platform" by Papuans to publicize the alleged abuses.

Ken Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, is alarmed at efforts by the Indonesian government to ban or limit press coverage of human rights violations and other issues in Papua. In a letter to President Yudhoyono, Roth urged the Indonesian government to respect press freedom and to allow full press coverage of all issues affecting the province.

Senior Indonesian ministers have vehemently denied that the people of West Papua are being repressed.

  Wikinews Australia has in-depth coverage of this issue: 43 West Papuans seek asylum