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Familiar stories

16 Jun 2006
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Australia has a special responsibility towards West Papuan refugees, writes Klaus Neumann

HISTORIANS are often fond of telling and retelling stories. So let me begin with a story. It was told by an Australian sub-collector of customs stationed on Thursday Island. He in turn recounted the words of a certain Alexander Toembay, a young man from the village of Sabon in the Indonesian-controlled western half of the island of New Guinea.

“On 6 [January]... we left... and walked towards southern coast of West Irian. We built bamboo raft with palm leaf sails and sailed down Bensbach river reaching mouth on 13 January... We sailed southeast. After 4 or 5 days reached Deliverance Island... After one week... left island. Wind drove us back towards West Irian and frightened. After few more days, all meat and water gone. Ate turtle eggs only. Very dry. Drank sea water in order to swallow food - turtle eggs. After further 6 days Gandewa’s leg had swollen up badly... He died at 4 pm. At 7 am next morning we put body of Gandewa over side. Continue to drink salt water and each man have 3 raw eggs each day. Ears plop and all men weak. Two days later had big storm in afternoon and filled bottles with water. One week after storm we see Badu Island in distance but tide take us away. Next day... managed to get raft ashore.”

You may have guessed - correctly - that the man telling this story is a West Papuan refugee. But you could be forgiven for assuming - incorrectly - that the journey described here took place in 2006. It didn’t. Alexander Toembay and eight companions set out for Australia in January 1969 from what is now the Indonesian province of Papua but was then called West Irian.

The refugees, all of them associated with the West Papuan independence movement, told of Indonesian atrocities, including the bombing of villages. One said that he witnessed two of his companions being beaten to death by Indonesian soldiers.

An Australian immigration official, who interviewed them on Thursday Island, threatened the eight survivors with deportation to Indonesia unless they agreed to be removed to Papua and New Guinea. There they applied for permits to stay in the Australian territory. The Territory administrator recommended against the granting of such permits with the argument that “it is only because of their continued anti-Indonesian attitudes, unwillingness to adapt to the regime there, that their future may be compromised”. On 19 May, the responsible minister approved of the recommendation that “The group be returned to West Irian if no arrangements are made for their transfer to the Netherlands within one month” and that “the Indonesian government be informed by the Embassy in Djakarta of the decision prior to their return”.

This is an unusual story. The vast majority of people who fled Indonesian-controlled Western New Guinea in the 1960s crossed into the Australian territory of Papua and New Guinea, rather than risked the journey to Australia. Between 1963 and 1973, thousands of West Papuans fled to Papua and New Guinea. That alternative had been rejected by Toembay and his companions: “No good crossing the Papuan border because Australian and Papuan patrols have orders to send all refugees back to West Irian and people sent back to West Irian after trying to escape are put in prisons”, they told the Australians interviewing them.

Australian officials sent many West Papuans back across the border. Some were not refugees. Others were, and some of these were imprisoned or even killed after their return to West Irian. Those allowed to stay were issued with five-year permissive residence visas (the forerunners of today’s temporary protection visas, TPVs). They had to sign an undertaking not to engage in anti-Indonesian political activity. Some West Papuan permissive residents were made to live in a camp on Manus Island - as far away from the sensitive border area as possible.

Then, the government was as much concerned about refugees using Australia as a ‘staging post’ as it has been in recent months. In the 1960s and early 1970s, the Indonesians complained repeatedly about West Papuan exiles. They were particularly concerned about refugees like Toembay who were hoping to be able to interest their host societies in their campaign for West Papuan autonomy or independence. Toembay told Australian officials: “I hope that Australian people give us political asylum protection and allow us to live in peace. But I also hope that people of Australia help us to get independence that was promised in the United Nations for people of West Irian.”

He was wrong: no such promise was ever made. But the West Papuans were told that they would be able to have a say about in their country’s destiny. They were invited to take part in the so-called Act of Free Choice in 1969, which was sanctioned by the United Nations and by those countries who had supported the Indonesian stance since 1962, including the United States and Australia - but turned out to be a sham nevertheless.

Historians are often fond of telling stories, and some of them are very good at it. Many historians are also good at remembering dates. I am not. But in relation to the issues we are discussing tonight there are two dates that I do remember - 1 December 1973 and 2 December 1973.

On 1 December, Papua New Guinea (formerly the Australian territory of Papua and New Guinea) was granted self-government. The next day, Australia became a signatory to the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. This protocol removed the time and geographical limitations of the 1951 Refugee Convention (to which Australia had acceded in 1954). By signing the protocol, the government committed itself to applying the criteria laid down in the convention to anybody seeking Australia’s protection, regardless of their nationality, colour or creed. After 2 December 1973, Australia allowed international law to govern its response to asylum seekers and refugees.

The legislation currently before parliament would effectively return Australia to its position before 2 December 1973, when the government dealt with asylum seekers as it saw fit, without being constrained by international legal obligations, and without the UNHCR’s involvement.

In one sense, the draft legislation is already taking us back 33 years. The authors of the Senate report tabled on Tuesday bemoan the “contradictory and sophist nature of some of the information provided by the Department”. The offender here is the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that that department was unable to furnish information about the bill and its implications to the extent required by the senators. The bill currently before parliament is likely to have been the brainchild of the Department of Foreign Affairs. Foreign Affairs staff and their minister are not meant to be responsibly involved in the administration of Australia’s refugee and asylum seeker policies (except when somebody seeks political asylum, as the Chinese diplomat Chen Yonglin did last year). They once were. Between 1963 and 1973, the foreign minister dealt with applications from West Papuans for temporary permissive residence. In fact, he, rather than the immigration minister, decided about all asylum requests in Australia and its territories.

Over the past few years, I have repeatedly argued that the immigration department should be relieved of its responsibility for the administration of Australia’s refugee and asylum seeker policies. I did not mean to call for a return to the days when refugee and asylum seeker issues were considered to be a foreign policy matter.

History could teach us to see the proposed legislation in a wider context. It could alert us to the fact that most West Papuan refugees have not fled to Australia but to Papua New Guinea, both before and after 1973. Papua New Guinea currently hosts more than 8000 West Papuan refugees. According to UNHCR statistics about the relative burden of providing protection, it carries a refugee load that is more than five times as heavy as Australia’s. What signal would Australia’s new policy send to PNG and other countries in our region?

History could also alert us to the circumstances under which Indonesia acquired the western half of New Guinea. The Australian government has consistently condoned Indonesia’s approach and downplayed its knowledge of human rights violations in Papua. Because of this history, Australia has a particular responsibility towards West Papuan refugees.

Finally, the fate of those West Papuans who came to harm after being returned by Australian officials to Indonesian territory in the 1960s and early 1970s ought to remind us of how important close attention to the rule of law and natural justice, and an unwavering commitment to international refugee law and human rights instruments are, even if such attention and commitment came at the price of Indonesian indignation. •

Klaus Neumann works in the Department of History, University of Melbourne. This is the text of his contribution to the public forum, ‘Shutting the Door?’, held at the University of Melbourne on 15 June 2006.

Photo: West Papuan refugee children in Blackwara settlement, East Awin, Papua New Guinea. UNHCR/J.Siffointe

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Published year only: 
2006
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