West Papuans refugees forced to fly 4000ks despite tuberculosis fears

Friday, January 27, 2006

Flag of West Papua

West Papuan asylum seekers, who arrived in Australia last week, were forced to make a 4000 kilometre journey to Christmas Island despite suspicions they had tuberculosis. The West Papuans were flown to Christmas Island on an RAAF Hercules last week.

Two of the group, a man and his child, have now been flown the 2,600 kilometres to Perth, Western Australia from the remote Indian Ocean island. Air force personnel had initially refused to fly them, concerned that the flight crew's health would be at risk.

"It's a complete farce, absurd" said one health official. "It has not only posed an unnecessary health risk, it has been hideously expensive."

The West Papuans were among a group of 43 refugees found last week on the far north-west coast of Cape York in Queensland. They had made a five-day journey from the Indonesian province in an outrigger canoe. They arrived with banners accusing Indonesia's military in the province ruled by Jakarta of genocide and intimidation. Their 25m traditional boat was fitted with an outboard motor and was flying the outlawed West Papuan flag.

Amid media scrutiny and the disapproval of the Indonesian government, the boat people underwent health checks before being sent to Christmas Island. X-rays and other medical examinations strongly indicated that at least one man had tuberculosis, yet the group were flown to Australia's Christmas Island Immigration Detention Centre.

Upon landing at the Island, health officials recommended the patients be transferred to Perth. However, the crew of the RAAF Hercules refused to take them, saying they were not "adequately equipped".

A Department of Immigration spokesman (DIMIA) said an alternative flight was arranged. "At this stage there has been no positive diagnosis for tuberculosis," the spokesman said.

The removal of the asylum seekers to Christmas Island has been met with fierce criticism from many refugee rights groups and opposition parties, who say it was impractical, potentially traumatising and hugely expensive. The Immigration Department says it has interviewed most of the asylum seekers but won't say if they have made formal asylum claims.


File:West-Papua-Rally Darwin2.jpg

Photo from a Rally in Darwin, showing support for the West Papuan refugees, 24 January 2006
(Image missing from Commons: image; log)

Rallies in Sydney, Melbourne, Darwin, Canberra and Brisbane were held this week, in support of the West Papuan asylum seekers. Refugee rights advocates protested the forced transfer to the remote Christmas Island facility.

Melbourne auxiliary bishop Hilton Deakin told about 130 people demonstrating outside DIMIA headquarters in Melbourne that, "we know that already the Indonesian authorities, in Canberra and beyond, are trying to get to them."

Yet the he Indonesian embassy in Canberra denied making any approach, saying: "I can guarantee that there has been no contact whatsoever, it hadn't been requested, it was never even sought."

But the Immigration Department has confirmed that "a junior delegation" from the embassy went to Weipa last Thursday seeking access to the asylum seekers. A spokesman for the Immigration Department said the Indonesians arrived in Weipa on Thursday but by then the Papuans had already been put on a plane for Christmas Island. The West Papuans were told they had a right to Indonesian consular assistance if they choose. "Not one has chosen to do so," the spokesman said.

"The majority of these 43 people are leaders for free expression and self-determination and possible independence because of the oppression from which they suffer," Bishop Deakin said. "Massacres, rapes and all the rest of it have gone on in that country for almost 30 years."

He called on the Australian Government to cancel its training program with the Indonesian military.

Democrats leader Lyn Allison said the Australian Government had "got it wrong on this issue". The 43 asylum seekers had been "whisked off" before they could tell their story, she said.

Greens Senator Kerry Nettle has called on the government to grant access to Papuan asylum seekers. The senator says they should not be in detention and they certainly should be allowed to communicate with the outside world.

Senator Nettle will go to Christmas Island this weekend to meet the imprisoned West Papuans. She said the immigration department is obligated under the Migration Act to allow her to meet them.

New Zealand Support

Map showing West Papua

Meanwhile New Zealand Greens have offered to take the asylum seekers. "New Zealand can show the Howard government how to be compassionate, as we did back in 2001 when we took some Afghan asylum seekers from the Tampa," the New Zealand Green Party Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Keith Locke says.

"It is shocking that the West Papuan refugees, having survived 450 kilometres of open water in a flimsy craft, are now bundled off to a Christmas Island detention camp - well out of range of those Australians who wish to help them," he said.

"Under refugee law these Papuans deserve special consideration, having come directly from their claimed country of persecution, Indonesia, not via a third country, as is the case with most asylum seekers in this part of the world.

"The Papuans certain have a good prima facie case. I know from my own visit to West Papua last April that there is substantial and ongoing harassment of the local people, particularly those who assert their right to political self-determination," said Mr Locke.

On Friday last week Indonesian security forces shot dead one Papuan protester, and wounded two others, in the Paniai district, where the 43 asylum seekers originate.


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