U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2001 – Papua New Guinea

At the end of 2000, Papua New Guinea (PNG) hosted an estimated 6,000 Indonesian refugees from Irian Jaya (also known as West Papua), an Indonesian province that shares the island of New Guinea with Papua New Guinea.

At the end of 2000, Papua New Guinea (PNG) hosted an estimated 6,000 Indonesian refugees from Irian Jaya (also known as West Papua), an Indonesian province that shares the island of New Guinea with Papua New Guinea.

Despite a continued separatist effort on the PNG island of Bougainville, there were no reports of internal displacement in Bougainville during 2000. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), less than 50 persons from Boungainville who remained in the Solomon Islands at the end of 2000 met the criteria for refugee status. Because of ethnic violence on the Solomons’ main island of Guadalcanal in 1999 and 2000, it is likely that some refugees from the Solomon Islands have fled to Papua New Guinea; however, their numbers are unknown.

Papua New Guinea is a party to the UN Refugee Convention but has not enacted domestic refugee legislation to implement the Convention.

Refugees from Indonesia

Refugees from 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. Between 1987 and 1999, Irian Jayans continued to cross into Papua New Guinea, although the number who considered themselves refugees and remained in Papua New Guinea was believed to be small.

As the Irian Jayan separatist movement gained momentum in 2000, resulting in new violence and displacement, PNG officials expressed concern about the “spillover effects,” including new refugee flows.

On December 1, ten people were killed Irian Jaya during an independence ceremony. That same day, Papua New Guinea closed its border with Indonesia. Two days later, PNG officials said they were increasing patrols along the border, a 435-mile (700 km) mountainous stretch of land. Announcing the move, PNG prime minister Mekere Morauta said his government supported Indonesian sovereignty over Irian Jaya. He added that Papua New Guinea would accept refugees from Irian Jaya if the United Nations asked it to do so.

Approximately 400 Irian Jayans crossed into Papua New Guinea during November and December. UNHCR said that some entered Papua New Guinea prior to the December 1 ceremony as a “precautionary measure.” UNHCR did not consider those persons to have a prima facie claim to refugee status; instead, it said the PNG government would need to determine their status individually. UNHCR said that it stood ready to assist but that the issue of status determination had not arisen by year’s end. The new arrivals had no legal status in Papua New Guinea, because the PNG government had granted them “temporary protection on a humanitarian basis.”

A Roman Catholic bishop in Papua New Guinea, Cesare Bonivento, said on December 10 that Papua New Guinea was refusing to protect hundreds of refugees who had fled the fighting. He said some 300 people – mostly women and children – had fled to a PNG police “barricade” on the Papua New Guinea side of the border, where they remained vulnerable to the violence. The bishop urged UNHCR to pressure the PNG government to accept the Irian Jayans as refugees.

Later that month, these 300 Irian Jayans were moved to a Catholic-run primary school in the border town of Vanimo. Another 130 were living in other informal settlements in the area. The PNG government had asked the Catholic Church to provide aid to the “border crossers,” and UNHCR funded the authorities to purchase relief items.

At the end of 2000, an estimated 7,500 Irian Jayans remained in Papua New Guinea, including the 400 who arrived in 2000. About 1,000 resided at a settlement site at East Awin, near Kuinga in Western Province. Most others lived in informal camps adjacent to the Indonesian border. UNHCR did not assist those refugees, considering them self-sufficient.

During the year, Papua New Guinea continued implementing a “limited integration” policy for Irian Jayan refugees at the East Awin settlement. Irian Jayans who lived in or moved to East Awin were eligible for “permissive residency” status. If granted permissive residency, the refugees could continue to reside in the settlement or relocate to other areas of the country. PNG officials said that after eight years of permissive residency, the refugees could apply for naturalization.

The government began distributing residence permits to persons with permissive residency in 1999. That year, PNG granted permissive residency to approximately 1,450 Irian Jayans. Only about 50 others received the status during 2000. Some of those with permissive residency had moved out of East Awin and found employment. According to UNHCR, most of the 1,000 residents of the East Awin settlement were among those granted permissive residency.

UNHCR no longer regards Irian Jayans with permissive residency as refugees, noting that 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 who were granted permissive residency in the previous year.

During 2000, UNHCR assisted the PNG government in the voluntary repatriation of some 900 persons to Irian Jaya.


A decade of fighting on the PNG island of Bougainville resulted in the deaths of up to 20,000 people and produced thousands of refugees and internally displaced persons.

The PNG government and the separatist Bougainville Revolutionary Army signed a permanent cease-fire in April 1998. An Australian-led peace monitoring group was established to supervise the cease-fire. However, the parties continued to debate the future of the island.

In late 1999, the parties announced a “breakthrough.” By the end of 2000, however, little progress had been made and further negotiations had been indefinitely postponed.

The government has said that a referendum should be delayed and should address only the question of autonomy. The Bougainville side wants a referendum sooner and wants the independence issue included in the referendum. Rebels have refused to disarm until these questions are resolved.