West Papuan refugees may face death if deported

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

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

Refugee rights advocates and Australian Parliamentarians on Christmas Island have expressed alarm at the Indonesian Government's direct request to Prime Minister John Howard for the return of 43 Papuan asylum seekers, who arrived on Cape York by boat on January 18th. Rob Wesley-Smith from Australians for a Free West Papua said the asylum seekers escaped because their lives were threatened, and would certainly face death if forced to return.

The Australian Government's Christmas Island Immigration Detention Centre

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has assured Mr Howard that the group will not be prosecuted if they are returned.

The West Papuan asylum seekers are currently being detained in an Australian Immigration Detention Centre on the remote Christmas Island, 2,600 kilometres off Perth, Western Australia. The group claims genocide at the hands of the Indonesian Government.

The Federal government flew the 36 adults and seven children to Christmas Island, where the families were put into immigration department housing and the single men in the detention centre.

Rob Wesley-Smith says the asylum seekers should be dealt with according to Australian law.

"The people have escaped... because their lives are at risk," he said. "Their fathers have been killed, one of them was in jail for a number of years himself, and this is the reality of the situation in West Papua - so no way should they go back - they'd be killed."

Supporters of the "West Papuan 43" say that the West Papuans "are entitled to the support of community groups and their fellow country people. They should also have easy access to translators, medical care and independent legal assistance."

The Indonesia Human Rights Committee has called on the Government to plea for the immediate release of the asylum seekers into the Australian community, and for their claims to be processed fairly and as expeditiously as possible.

Immigration Minister Senator Amanda Vanstone said it was not always possible to keep women and children out of detention.

The New Zealand Green Party has called for some of the asylum seekers to be processed in New Zealand.

Case for asylum

Mr Wesley-Smith says they have legitimate claims for refugee status. "There's evidence that some have been mistreated and tortured and they're a cohesive group and strongly politically motivated, and that there is no way that they would be seen as a group to be sent back - that that's just a preliminary assessment," he said.

The 43 asylum seekers told of graphic, disturbing accounts of beatings and torture by Indonesian military, during interviews with Immigration officers over the past week.

According to The Melbourne Age newspaper, an Immigration source said the refugees had a "very strong case" for refugee status. "Some of what has come out of the interviews has been absolutely heart-wrenching," the source said. The group described accounts of vicious bashings while in prison and attacks on villages and livestock in retaliation for the Papuans agitating for independence.

Despite human rights organisations and academic reports, detailing thousands of deaths and even "genocide", Indonesia says "abuses no longer occur in West Papua."

Under the control of the Indonesian military an estimated 100,000 West Papuans have lost their lives over the last four decades. Two days after the West Papuan refugees arrived in Australia, Indonesian troops opened fire in the Paniai district, killing a 13-year-old and wounding two others.

West Papuan leaders and academics say that the indigenous people may be wiped out because of new threats such as an HIV/Aids epidemic and the unchecked environmental devastation caused the exploitation of forestry and mineral resources.

Australian government responses

The Australian government have yet to make a decision on the asylum seekers, the general affairs counsellor of the Australian Embassy said in Jakarta.

"There is no decision yet, not at all," Elizabeth O'Neill said. She said verification and interviews by Australian authorities were "standard procedure" and valid for anybody arriving in the country without official documents. The process, she said, was in line with United Nations Conventions and Australian laws.

She said the two governments have had good relations since the Bali bombing in October 2002 and the tsunami in December 2004. Reports in Jakarta media say John Howard has given assurance to Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono that the handling of the West Papuan group, who's territory is under Indonesian authority, would not disturb the relation between the two countries.

"Prime Minister Howard has even reiterated his support that Papua is part of the Indonesian sovereignty, and promised to have close communication both at the high level, ministerial and official levels to handle the case without disturbing our relation," said a spokesman.

A Department of Immigration spokesman said lawyers were currently interviewing the West Papuans on Christmas Island about their asylum claims.

Background: Australia's Pacific Solution

The Papuans' boat was only the third boat of asylum seekers to arrive on the mainland since 2001. Asylum seekers who arrive by boat are sent to remote detention centres for processing, in what the Howard Government calls the Pacific Solution.

Australia's borders are protected by mandatory detention legislation. The Australian government detains all persons entering the country by boat without a valid visa, including children. Since the late 1990’s unathorised arrivals have been transferred to one of the Australian immigration detention facilities on the Australian mainland, or to Manus Island, Nauru or Christmas Island as part of the Pacific Solution. Mandatory detention remains a very controversial aspect of Australian immigration policy.

A High Court decision in 2005 means that detention can also be indefinite - the Court ruled that the government had the right to keep a Palestinian asylum seeker in detention, even without any prospect of release.

Greens senator Kerry Nettle visited Christmas Island at the weekend and talked with some of the Papuans. She called on the Government to move the group to the Australian mainland, where there is an established West Papuan community.