Last Updated: Wednesday, 18 October 2017, 08:56 GMT

U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2003 - Papua New Guinea

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 1 June 2003
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2003 - Papua New Guinea , 1 June 2003, available at: [accessed 18 October 2017]
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.

Papua New Guinea (PNG) hosted approximately 5,200 refugees and asylum seekers at the end of 2002. Of those, an estimated 5,100 were Indonesian refugees from Papua (formerly known as Irian Jaya), an Indonesian province that shares the island of New Guinea with Papua New Guinea. The other 100 were primarily Iraqi asylum seekers who had attempted to land on Australian territory by boat. Australia transferred them to Papua New Guinea as part of the so-called "Pacific Solution" for unauthorized boat arrivals.

An estimated 500 persons remained internally displaced on the PNG island of Bougainville.

Papua New Guinea is a party to the UN Refugee Convention, but has not enacted domestic refugee legislation. In 2001, the government hired a consultant to draft refugee legislation and sought guidance from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). However, the government took no action on such legislation in 2002.

Refugees from Indonesia

Refugees from the Indonesian province of Irian Jaya (renamed Papua in 2002) first fled to Papua New Guinea in 1984 to escape fighting between the Indonesian army and the Free Papua Movement (OPM), a small separatist group. During 1984–86, Papua New Guinea received more than 12,000 Irian Jayans, most of whom the PNG government declared to be prima facie refugees. Smaller numbers of Irian Jayan asylum seekers entered and remained in Papua New Guinea between 1987 and 2000.

More than 400 Irian Jayans crossed into Papua New Guinea during November and December 2000. UNHCR did not consider them to have a prima facie claim to refugee status; instead, the refugee agency said the PNG government would need to determine their status individually, despite the fact that the government had never conducted such determinations for any asylum seekers.

By the end of 2001, the government had not assessed the claims, leaving the asylum seekers with no legal status. Nearly 150 of these arrivals had returned to Indonesia voluntarily (and without UNHCR assistance), while about 300 remained in the border town of Vanimo – some at a Catholic-run center and others in informal settlements. The PNG government had agreed to an Indonesian request to return the asylum seekers, and the two countries began discussing "repatriation."

In August 2002, however, the PNG government – with training and monitoring by UNHCR – conducted refugee status determinations for the 300 asylum seekers. Preliminary results indicated that some 80 percent were refugees. At year's end, a final decision regarding the asylum seekers' status – and a durable solution – had not been made.

Limited Integration

In addition to the 300 asylum seekers who entered in late 2000, a few thousand Irian Jayans who arrived in earlier years remained in Papua New Guinea. Many resided at a settlement site at East Awin, near Kuinga in Western Province.

In 1997, Papua New Guinea began implementing a "limited integration" policy for Irian Jayans at the East Awin settlement. Those who lived in or moved to East Awin, and who met certain criteria, were eligible for "permissive residency" status. If granted permissive residency, the refugees could continue to live in the settlement or relocate to other areas of the country. After eight years of permissive residency, the refugees could apply for naturalization.

According to UNHCR, all but approximately 800 Irian Jayans at East Awin had been granted permissive residency by the end of 2002. UNHCR no longer considers persons with permissive residency – some 2,500 to 3,000 persons – to be refugees, because the status "is a durable solution which grants recipients similar rights and responsibilities to those of PNG nationals."

The U.S. Committee for Refugees continues to count as refugees the 800 persons remaining at East Awin who had not yet received permissive residency, as well as an estimated 4,000 Irian Jayan asylum seekers who have elected to live outside of East Awin and not apply for permissive residency.

UNHCR had no access to members of the latter group, who were among an even larger group of Irian Jayans – possibly more than 5,000 – who have lived inside the PNG border for years. Despite a long history of cross-border movement, the presence of the Irian Jayans – who, like persons from Papua New Guinea, are ethnically Melanesian – has sparked security concerns, since Indonesia has claimed that the border settlements harbor OPM rebels.

Australia's "Pacific Solution"

In August 2001, Australia refused to allow the entry of more than 400 persons, mostly Afghans, aboard a Norwegian freighter, the Tampa, that had rescued them at sea and attempted to bring them to Australia's Christmas Island.

Australia has transferred most unauthorized boat arrivals since September 2001 to either Nauru or Papua New Guinea, the two countries that have agreed to serve as offshore refugee processing sites for Australia in exchange for financial aid.

PNG officials chose the remote island of Manus – a former World War II air and naval staging point about 217 miles (350 km) from the PNG mainland – as the location for the processing center. Australia funded the construction of the center, which the International Organization for Migration operates and will eventually hand over to the PNG government.

Australian flew 216 mainly Iraqi asylum seekers from Christmas Island to Manus in October 2001, and another 150 during 2002. Because UNHCR refused to conduct refugee status determinations for the asylum seekers – saying that Australia's new system was "inconsistent with the edifice of asylum that's been built up over the years" – Australia sent it's own immigration officials.

In September, some 50 asylum seekers broke out of the Manus facility in protest of their prolonged detention. They were all eventually returned to detention. The next month, Papua New Guinea extended its deal with Australia, despite earlier comments by the PNG prime minister that his country had become a "dumping ground" for refugees.

By the end of 2002, Australia had conducted refugee determinations for 339 persons on Manus, approving 292 as refugees and denying 40, while seven cases were otherwise resolved. Most of those approved were resettled in other countries, including Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, and Canada.

At year's end, only about 100 approved refugees remained on Manus.


Fighting on Bougainville between 1989 and 1998 left up to 20,000 people dead and produced thousands of refugees and internally displaced persons. The PNG government and the separatist Bougainville Revolutionary Army signed a cease-fire in 1998, but continued to debate the island's future. In August 2001, the parties signed a peace agreement to formally end the hostilities, provide for the establishment of an autonomous Bougainville government, and allow for a referendum on full independence within 10 to15 years.

Despite a few setbacks regarding weapons disposal during 2002, the peace process remained on track at year's end. Elections for the Bougainville government were set for 2003.

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