The plight of more than 8,000 West Papuan refugees living in Papua New Guinea’s Western Province, near the border of West Papua, rarely receives our attention in Australia. Yet, a significant number of refugees have been living in this area for over 28 years.
Most of these refugees live in the remote North Fly District, either in the official refugee site at East Awin, in villages and settlements along the border, or in Kiunga town.
According to Maureen Sexton, a Sister of Mercy of the Melbourne Congregation who has been supporting refugees in this area since 2003, movement across the border has happened for generations because local people have land and community connections on both sides of the border.
However, she believes three critical incidents precipitated larger movements of people. The first was in 1960 when the Dutch handed over West Papua to Indonesia. The second coincided with the uprising that followed the 1969 “Act of Free Choice”, when Indonesia selected a minority of Papuans to vote for the country becoming either independent or part of Indonesia. It is claimed that they were forced by the Indonesian Government to vote for the integration of West Papua into Indonesia.
The third incident was in 1984 when an estimated 15,000 West Papuans crossed the border at various points, mostly in the Western Province. They were seeking international recognition of their long struggle for independence. Since then, there have been smaller movements, during the 1990s and again in 2001.
The status of West Papuan refugees in PNG varies and is a complex matter. Maureen explains that people who came prior to independence in 1975 have assimilated and are recognised as PNG citizens. But refugees who came across in the 1980s, 1990s and between 2002 and 2004, fall into two groups: those who have relocated to the East Awin refugee site (about 2,700), and those who have chosen to remain on the border between 5,000 and 6,000).
Refugees at the East Awin site have “permissive residency” which means they have official refugee status and some privileges. The latter group, referred to by the government as “traditional border crossers”, had all services removed by the PNG Government and the UN’s Refugee Agency, the UNHCR in 1987.
Maureen’s main work is supporting these border refugees. In 2004, she was joined by Catherine Corbett, a Sister of Mercy of the North Sydney Congregation. Maureen works in the Diocese of Daru-Kiunga’s Social Programme for Refugees which provides education, health care, and advocacy support for refugees living in Kiunga and the border settlements on the Fly River.
Catherine is a member of the St Gerard’s Pastoral Team which includes eight border villages in its boundaries. She is the Parish Women’s Animator working closely with the Women’s Co-ordinator and the many women’s groups. This year the women have started a pidgin literacy course.
In 2006-2007, Mercy Works Inc., the relief and development arm of the Institute of Sisters of Mercy, supported the work of the Social Programme for Refugees in three ways. It has contributed toward the construction of a new building at Kiunga which serves the dual purpose of providing a gathering space for development and support activities among refugees, as well as an office location for staff of the programme. Construction of the building is due to finish in October 2007.
Funds were also used to support refugee students at primary and high school levels, encouraging them to stay in the school system for as long as they are academically achieving. Priority was given to young women and those students whose parents are subsistence farmers and from remote areas.The community library at the East Awin refugee site was also strengthened through the purchase of much needed books and resources.
Would you like to partner with Mercy Works Inc. to support the needs of West Papuan refugees living in Kiunga and the North Fly District of Papua New Guinea? Find out more.