Environmental damage caused by copper mining in Papua New Guinea (PNG) has affected thousands of refugees from the neighbouring Indonesian province of West Papua who have not received any support from PNG or the mining company, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and NGOs.
“Some of the border settlements of West Papuan refugees have become severely affected by flooding associated with sediment build-up in the rivers due to the Ok Tedi mine,” said Ben Farrell, a regional UNHCR spokesperson, referring to a mine that has operated in PNG’s western provinces since 1984.
The western half of New Guinea Island, West Papua, is an Indonesian province where separatists have fought for independence for decades. The 1984 Indonesian government crackdown on the Free Papua Movement of West Papuan separatists led to thousands of West Papuans fleeing to neighbouring PNG.
At least 1,500 West Papuan refugees hosted by PNG along Fly river – the second longest river running through the half-island nation’s western provinces – have been affected by ongoing mine-induced flood damage, according to Wren Chadwick, the former advocacy and information officer for Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) based in the capital, Port Moresby.
Flooding has destroyed food gardens and sago palms, the traditional food staple, “forcing people into the jungle to wait out the floods so they can access food sources,” said Chadwick.
In a 2009 JRS assessment, more than 3,200 refugees living along the river cited pollution from the mines as the main obstacle to growing food.
The Ok Tedi mine dumps roughly 90 million tons of waste into the Ok Tedi and Fly rivers annually, according to the company’s environmental assessments. Mine sediment causes river beds to rise, forcing mine-contaminated water onto surrounding fields where it has killed up to 3,000sqkm of vegetation in a phenomenon known as “die-back”.
“In PNG mines have polluted rivers, damaged agricultural land and displaced communities from their homes and farmland,” said Chris Albin-Lackey, Human Rights Watch’s senior researcher on extractive industries based in New York.
The Ok Tedi mine contributes to roughly 18 percent of the country’s annual GDP, according to a 2012 World Bank report.
Compensation, but not for refugees
While Ok Tedi mine has paid out nearly US$980 million to affected communities, West Papuan refugees do not qualify because they are living outside the area designated for them under amendments made to the 1987 Migration Act which restricts them to East Awin camp, 6,000 hectares in the country’s northeast.
Relocation plans are under way for local communities, but refugees living alongside those communities are not included, according to UNHCR.
“West Papuan refugees without Permissive Residence Permits and [other] non-Melanesian asylum seekers and refugees have no access to documentation or some basic rights such as access to the labour market,” said Farrell.
Refugees continue to live along the rivers due to kinship ties, despite the lack of working papers in a place where even subsistence farming for survival requires documents.
As of 2010 there were some 9,700 West Papuan refugees in PNG, of whom nearly 2,300 were in the designated East Awin area, 5,000 in border areas and some 2,400 in cities.
The 1996 Limited Integration Policy for West Papuan refugees stipulated that only refugees who have lived in East Awin for at least six months can get Permissive Residency Permits, which entitle them to freedom of movement, the right to work, and access to health services and education.
Those who decline relocation to camps in East Awin bear the impact of flooding without assistance as well as “run-down shelters, lack of adequate water and sanitation facilities, and lack of security of land tenure and the threat of forced eviction,” according to UNHCR’s Farrell.
“The biggest issue is lack of a national refugee policy that realistically deals with refugees who refuse to move to East Awin,” Chadwick said.
An official with the government-funded think-tank Consultative Implementation and Monitoring Council Secretariat, which has helped draft national refugee policy, said no refugees should be refused humanitarian assistance.