U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2002 - Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea (PNG) hosted nearly 5,400 refugees and asylum seekers at the end of 2001. Of those, 5,154 were Indonesian refugees from Irian Jaya (also known as Papua), an Indonesian province that shares the island of New Guinea with Papua New Guinea. The other 216 were primarily Iraqi asylum seekers who had attempted to land on Australian territory by boat. Australia transferred them to Papua New Guinea in October as part of Australia's "Pacific Solution" for unauthorized boat arrivals.

An estimated 500 persons remained internally displaced on the PNG island of Bougainville. Despite a continuing separatist movement on the island during much of 2001, there were no reports of new displacement during the year.

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 government and Bougainville leaders 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.

Papua New Guinea is a party to the UN Refugee Convention but has not enacted domestic refugee legislation and has no domestic system to assess asylum claims. In 2001, however, the government hired a consultant to draft refugee legislation and sought guidance from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Refugees from Indonesia

Refugees from the Indonesian province of Irian Jaya (Papua) first fled to Papua New Guinea in 1984 to escape fighting between the Indonesian army and the Organisasi Papua Merdeka, 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, which the government did not do, leaving the group with no legal status. At the end of 2000, more than 300 of the asylum seekers were residing in a Catholic-run "camp" in the border town of Vanimo, while others lived in informal settlements.

In March 2001, PNG police reportedly raided the camp at Vanimo and brutally beat some of the asylum seekers, apparently to coerce them into returning to Indonesia. By the end of 2001 – more than a year after the asylum seekers had arrived – the PNG government still had not acted on the group's refugee claims. While as many as 150 had returned to Indonesia voluntarily (and without UNHCR assistance), 313 remained at Vanimo.

Contrary to UNHCR's practice in other countries that have signed the UN Refugee Convention but have no system for assessing refugee claims, the refugee agency continued to insist that it was Papua New Guinea's responsibility to assess the claims of the 313 Irian Jayans. UNHCR offered technical assistance in conducting refugee screening, but the government had not accepted the offer by year's end.

By year's end, the PNG government had agreed to an Indonesian request to return the asylum seekers, and the two countries began organizing an early 2002 "repatriation." The Catholic Church strongly condemned the plan.

In addition to the 313 asylum seekers who entered in late 2000, some 4,800 Irian Jayans who arrived in earlier years, and whom UNHCR and the PNG government still considered to be refugees, remained in Papua New Guinea. Most resided at a settlement site at East Awin, near Kuinga in Western Province. As many as 5,000 other Irian Jayans, most of whom were not considered refugees, lived in informal settlements near the Indonesian border.

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, Papua New Guinea had granted permissive residency to some 2,457 Irian Jayans by the end of 2000, but no persons received the status during 2001 (although 120 application were pending at year's end). UNHCR no longer considers persons with permissive residency to be refugees because the status "is a durable solution which grants recipients similar rights and responsibilities to those of PNG nationals." For this reason, the U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR) no longer counts as refugees persons granted permissive residency.

Both UNHCR and USCR continue to count as refugees the 432 persons remaining at East Awin at the end of 2001 who had not yet received permissive residency, as well as the 4,409 Irian Jayans who have elected to live outside of East Awin and not apply for permissive residency. However, UNHCR had no access to the latter group.

Australia's "Pacific Solution"

In late August, Australia refused to allow the entry of more than 400 persons – most of whom were believed to be Afghans – aboard a Norwegian freighter, the Tampa, that had rescued them at sea and attempted to bring them to Australia's Christmas Island. The incident sparked international attention and ushered in a dramatic new approach to Australia's treatment of asylum seekers.

Part of the new approach is Australia's so-called "Pacific Solution," under which Australia has transferred most unauthorized boat arrivals since August 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.

On October 11, Australia announced that it had signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Papua New Guinea, under which Australia would provide Papua New Guinea with an initial aid package worth the equivalent of $500,000 for infrastructure development, as well as unspecified "technical and other assistance to assist them with their own illegal movement of people." In return, Papua New Guinea would establish a processing center for "unauthorized boat arrivals" on its territory.

Under the agreement, Australia would cover the costs of establishing the center, which the International Organization for Migration (IOM) would operate and eventually hand over to the PNG government. Papua New Guinea would host the asylum seekers for up to six months.

PNG officials later chose the remote island of Manus – a former World War II air and naval staging point about 217 miles (350 km) from the Papua New Guinea mainland – as the location for the processing center. Australia flew 216 mainly Iraqi asylum seekers from Christmas Island to Manus on October 21 and 22.

Because UNHCR refused to screen the group in Papua New Guinea, Australia sent immigration officials to conduct status determinations.

Shortly after their arrival on Manus, groups of asylum seekers were involved in clashes with IOM officials and interpreters, while others staged a hunger strike. A local reporter said the asylum seekers were angry because they had not been informed that they were going to Manus and had expected to go to Australia.

Australia soon sought to extend the MOU to 12 months and to increase the maximum number of asylum seekers to 1,000. At year's end, Papua New Guinea had not yet approved the changes. PNG officials were reportedly concerned with the slow pace of infrastructure development as well as by the uncertainty of the asylum seekers' fate. Australia had said it would take its "fair share" of those found to be refugees and would urge other countries to do the same.

In late December, reports of an outbreak of malaria among the asylum seekers on Manus – on the heels of other reports of poor sanitation and disease – prompted renewed calls by human rights and religious groups for an end to the Pacific Solution. Groups such as Amnesty International had previously called the policy unsustainable.


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