Last Updated: Monday, 19 February 2018, 14:34 GMT

U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 1999 - Papua New Guinea

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 1 January 1999
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 1999 - Papua New Guinea , 1 January 1999, available at: [accessed 21 February 2018]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

At the end of 1998, Papua New Guinea (PNG) hosted more than 8,000 Indonesian refugees from Irian Jaya, an Indonesian province that shares the island of New Guinea with Papua New Guinea. An unknown number of refugees from the PNG island of Bougainville remained in the Solomon Islands at year's end, while an estimated 2,000 to 6,000 persons remained displaced on Bougainville.

Refugees from Indonesia

Indonesian refugees from the province of Irian Jaya first fled to Papua New Guinea in 1984 to escape fighting between the Indonesian army and forces of the Organisasi Papua Merdeka, a small insurgent group seeking independence for Irian Jaya. During 1984-87, Papua New Guinea received more than 12,000 Irian Jayan refugees. At the end of 1998, more than 8,000 of the refugees remained there, with 3,679 living at a UNHCR assisted, government-run settlement at East Awin, near Kuinga in Western Province. Most others were living without assistance in villages and unofficial camps near the Indonesian border, while smaller numbers lived in urban centers with friends and relatives.

According to UNHCR, only "a handful" of new Irian Jayan refugees arrived in Papua New Guinea during 1998. There was no organized voluntary repatriation during the year, although several small groups of refugees traveled to Indonesia in late 1998 to assess conditions in areas of prospective return. A voluntary repatriation scheduled for mid-1998, with the support of UNHCR and the PNG government, was indefinitely postponed when Indonesia requested a repatriation working group to study the issue.

According to the PNG government, Indonesia took this step because it had not prepared shelters or arranged other necessary services for returnees. The government also said 143 Irian Jayan refugees had requested the repatriation before it was postponed.

Political events in Indonesia during 1998, including the May 1998 resignation of Indonesia's long-time president, Suharto, may have fueled the separatist ambitions of some Irian Jayans, as was the case in East Timor and other troubled areas of Indonesia.

In 1997, Papua New Guinea slowly began implementing a "limited integration" policy for Irian Jayan refugees at East Awin. Irian Jayans who seek and obtain "permissive residency" status may continue to reside at East Awin or to relocate to other areas of the country. After a qualifying period of permissive residency, the refugees may apply for naturalization. In the meantime, the refugees at the East Awin settlement have become relatively self-sufficient: food is supplied through household gardens, supplemented by small livestock and modest store bought goods; and a small cash source is available through the sale of food in a nearby Kuinga village.

In 1998, Papua New Guinea continued implementing the permissive residency policy, although actual residence permits would not be distributed until early 1999. The government continued to insist that only Irian Jayans who resided at or moved to East Awin could apply. According to UNHCR, no significant movement to East Awin resulted from the policy. In November and December, the PNG government, with UNHCR participation, granted permissive residency to 350 Irian Jayan families (1,235 persons). Many other applications were to be screened in 1999.

UNHCR said it considers permissive residency an effective mode of local integration, as it would move the Irian Jayans away from refugee status and give them substantially greater legal rights of movement, education, and employment.

In 1997, press reports indicated that, in implementing the policy, Papua New Guinea would no longer accept Indonesian refugees. However, PNG authorities assured UNHCR that it remains a country of asylum for Irian Jayan refugees, including new arrivals. The government said that, despite reports to the contrary, it had not entered into an agreement with Indonesia regarding future refugees.

According to UNHCR, the legal status of Irian Jayans outside of East Awin – in the border area and in urban centers – would be a developing issue in 1999.

Uprooted Papua New Guineans

At the end of the year, an estimated 2,000 to 6,000 Papua New Guineans remained displaced on the PNG island of Bougainville. An unknown, but likely much smaller, number of Papua New Guineans from Bougainville were refugees in the Solomon Islands.

Since 1988, several thousand refugees from Bougainville have fled to the neighboring Solomon Islands. They left to escape fighting between the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA), a group that seeks independence for Bougainville, and PNG government forces.

The uprising began in 1989 as a dispute over fair compensation in a copper mining project. When the PNG government and an Australian mining firm failed to meet the demands of indigenous Bougainville landowners, villagers attacked the mine and halted the operation. The attacks turned to full-scale insurgency, and more than 10,000 people died in nine years of fighting.

In October 1997, the PNG government and the BRA agreed to an interim truce, to be enforced by a New Zealand-led multinational truce monitoring group. In January 1998, the two parties signed the Lincoln Agreement, a declaration of peace designed to end the civil war on Bougainville. A permanent cease-fire was signed on April 30.

The accords established a transitional government for Bougainville and set an end-of-year deadline for elections for a Bougainville Reconciliation Government (BRG). The BRG would have the authority to negotiate with the PNG government over eventual autonomy, and possibly independence, for Bougainville.

In October, PNG and Bougainville leaders completed an overall structure for the reconciliation government, even though some rebel leaders advocated immediate independence. However, in December the PNG parliament failed to endorse constitutional and legislative amendments needed to establish the BRG.

Although it was clear that elections would not take place by the end of 1998, Bougainville leaders adopted a BRG constitution, to take effect when the transitional government expired with the new year. As 1998 ended, PNG officials created the "legal working space" for the formation of the BRG by suspending the transitional government and assuming interim authority over Bougainville.

The decade of fighting on Bougainville produced thousands of refugees and internally displaced people. Most refugees fled to the Solomon Islands, where some settled permanently. Others returned spontaneously to Bougainville or to the PNG mainland. At the end of 1997, only 800 PNG refugees remained in the Solomon Islands, and there was considerable return movement in 1998 because of the peace process. However, no reliable estimates of refugees remaining at the end of 1998 were available, according to UNHCR. The refugees were not registered, and an unknown number of Bougainvilleans traveled to the Solomon Islands and remained there for non-refugee-like reasons. All refugee repatriation during the year was spontaneous (not facilitated by UNHCR) and apparently voluntary.

Although an estimated 20,000 Bougainvilleans were internally displaced at the end of 1997, UNHCR believed that the number had decreased to between 2,000 and 6,000 by the end of 1998. Many of the displaced moved back to their former villages, leaving one or more family members in "care centers" run by a loose network of local authorities. NGOs and other organizations assisting the displaced reportedly did not distribute aid through the care centers, and could not provide a more exact estimate of their numbers.

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