West Papuans in Papua New Guinea

It is a refugee crisis few have ever heard of: people from West Papua, part of Indonesia, have been fleeing conflict by crossing a porous international border on the same island to reach safety in Papua New Guinea, ever since a referendum considered seriously flawed took place more than 50 years ago.

West Papuans in Papua New Guinea
Traditional dress in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, on Independence Day (©Rita Willaert/Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Work will soon be underway at a refugee camp few people have ever heard of: Blackwara Camp, on the peripheries of a town called Vanimo, an agglomeration of fishing villages on the northwest coast of Papua New Guinea, a nation on the eastern half of New Guinea Island. The other half of this huge South Pacific island, called West Papua, is in fact territory of Indonesia, and people have continuously trickled over the border into Papua New Guinea for decades – pushed by conflict. An initial wave of refugees arrived in Papua New Guinea in the 1980s, when Indonesian military and militias first started campaigns to root out West Papuan nationalist movements and fighters. Some 12,000 people arrived in that initial period, but scores of people continue to cross the border on a regular basis to this day, arriving with just the clothes on their backs. They receive almost no assistance from anyone, with the exception of what Catholic missions across Papua New Guinea quietly provide. In July, the International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC), in partnership with the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands (CBCPNGSI), broke ground to expand and improve facilities at Vanimo, one of the few existing though dilapidated reception centers for asylum seekers from West Papua.

The pilot project will run for nine months. Funds will enable the CBCPNGSI, through the local bishop and parish, to purchase shelter materials and tools, food, cooking supplies, mattresses, clothing, blankets, gardening items, tanks and jerry cans for water storage and other supplies needed for a minimum standard of human dignity for people forced to flee their villages and homes. However, it is a stop-gap measure in a situation that needs what humanitarians call ‘durable solutions,’ because the 12,000 people who crossed the border in the 1980s have had children and now grand-children in Papua New Guinea, and, for two generations, some 2000 of them have lived without any status in squatter camps in the capital, Port Moresby, on the southeast coast. Thousands more are dispersed in settlements along the border, urban areas close to the border and the Iowara-East Awin camp, a site originally established by UNHCR in 1989 and subsequently transferred to the government for refugee resettlement, but not far superior to the rudimentary set-up in Vanimo.

A past of Colonial and Cold War power struggles

Colonialism is thought of as being a figment of the past – an antiquated, unfair, and inevitably brutal form of subjugation and violence which, seen from today’s more enlightened view, has no place in the modern world. But some places were left out when all the colonial powers left, and one of those is West Papua. Even the name connotes some of the island’s colonial past. It refers to the fact that the indigenous people, Papuans, had frizzy hair. ‘Papua’ derives from the Malay word for frizzy, or fuzzy. Yet Papuans are not Malays; they are Melanesians, similar to other Pacific islanders, such as the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, and Fiji. For more than a century, the indigenous population has been governed as one part of some much larger State or power, with little autonomy.

West Papua had been colonized by the Dutch, while the British and the Germans carved out the Southeast and Northeast of the island, respectively. As countries gained their freedom from European colonialism in the years following World War II, what is now Papua New Guinea passed from British to Australian control, before gaining independence in 1975. The Dutch East Indies gained independence from the Netherlands in 1949, except for West Papua. The new nation that was formed, Indonesia, disputed the Netherlands’ having retained control over West Papua, and in a UN-administered referendum that has been largely considered as lacking in democratic principles, in 1969 West Papua voted to be incorporated into Indonesia like the rest of the former Dutch territories. Most Papuans were left off the voter registers, leaving 1,025 electors to decide for a population of more than 800,000 people. The vote was unanimous, absorbing West Papua back into Indonesia. That is when refugees first started to arrive.

Since then, thousands of West Papuans have been eking out an existence in parts of Papua New Guinea. Sonny Karubaba, who is in his early 40s and has children of his own now, “grew up in refugee camps and became a man in refugee camps” in Papua New Guinea. His story is typical: in the middle of the night, Indonesian military attacks were intense and drawing too close. It was 1984. Karubaba’s father, like many West Papuans, supported the nationalist movement among the local population, ferrying fighters and supplies around in the area where he grew up, Jayapura, a town on the north coast near the border with Papua New Guinea. The father was a known nationalist sympathizer, so his parents left with their son and his sister in the dead of night, and four hours later arrived by canoe at daybreak in Vanimo, on the other side of the border with Papua New Guinea. Karubaba was four.

With support from the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, the family subsequently transferred to the Iowara relocation site in the central highlands, since development assistance (as opposed to emergency assistance) could only be facilitated away from less secure areas along the border. In 2001, he transferred to Hohola camp in the nation’s capital, Port Moresby, one of the main settlements of West Papuans in the city. Karubaba, unlike many others, was able to regularize his paperwork to access education and employment. He has a university degree in Mass Communication, but he continues to live in Hohola Camp with 21 families in a space that is 60 x 40 meters, or about one US city block, without the high-rises. The extended families, now spanning several generations, all use one pit latrine and share one designated area for cooking, doing laundry and showering on what is a vacant lot with two improvised structures, which have been added to with makeshift material, such as cardboard boxes, plywood, and sheet metal. While it is less than ideal, the families in Hohola have been fighting eviction notices since 1997, because one business owns the blocks on either side of their settlement, and that business also wants the piece of land in between for development. Despite the Hohola residents’ practically sleeping on top of one another, or in the skeletons of old cars, they are fighting for it because it’s the only home they have.

Families at Port Moresby’s Rainbow Camp, during a visit with by the CBCPNGSI’s Migrants Desk and Caritas Papua New Guinea

At several of the other informal settlements, Rainbow (one of the biggest and one of the first in Port Moresby), Tete and Nine Mile camps, ICMC and the Migrants Desk of the CBCPNGSI have been working, since March of this year, to build more modern toilet facilities and shower blocks, as well as water supply for cooking and cleaning. In Hohola, however, and some other camps, given the residents are living on land they have no official title to, upgrades to the water and sanitation systems cannot be undertaken so long as there remains a threat of eviction. Where that type of work has begun, the toilet and washing facilities are being designed and built in such a way that they can be dismantled and taken elsewhere, if the communities are forced to vacate.

In addition, some emergency funds are also supporting vulnerable and generally older Papuan refugees, who have grown old in Papua New Guinea but can no longer support themselves and who might not have family with them to provide needed assistance. Some have medical issues and need treatments they cannot pay for; thus, direct cash disbursements help them to absorb these high costs.

You can’t manage what you don’t count

Port Moresby hosts about 200 West Papuan families in total, dispersed across the city in nine different informal camps, squatting on land but having no legal right to stay there. Rainbow and Waigani camps, for example, are staked out where wastewater and run-off drain out of the city, but during the rainy season the waters can wash back into the camp, with all that entails in terms of hygiene and mosquito-borne diseases.

People don’t have the legal right to the land, and with little spare income, homes are cobbled together from what materials can be obtained.

Yet according to Papua New Guinea’s Immigration and Citizenship Authority (ICA), at the end of 2015, only 2,721 refugees had been registered in the country’s Western Province. This is the most recent data available on the government’s website. However, according to conservative estimates, the total number of West Papuans in Papua New Guinea is 12,000 people, which accounts for those who fled in the 1980s, but the figure has never been updated.

“There is no national policy to address the presence of West Papuans specifically in Papua New Guinea, despite their having been here for forty years,” said Jason Siwat, Director of the Migrants and Refugees Desk of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. The Migrants and Refugees Desk is supporting the residents of Hohola with legal assistance, having engaged a law firm to prevent them from being evicted while advocating for their right to remain on the land before the National Court. In the meantime, regulations prevent them from building or developing the site in any way, so long as the case remains unresolved. And so the West Papuans are forced to squat.

“The West Papuans look like us, and so they have been allowed to cross into Papua New Guinea and to stay here, but that is it. They are left to their own devices with no support from the government, but it’s not enough to turn a blind eye to them and just leave them to blend in with the community.”

Siwat also emphasizes that, for Papuans, 97% of land is held under customary tenure, meaning land typically belongs to clans and tribes, which own land in common and set it aside for different purposes, such as traditional hunting grounds, community gardens, villages and protected forests. It’s a tradition everyone in that system knows and understands, despite the lack of land titles.

“Only the State can intervene to expropriate land from a community having rights to it in Papua New Guinea, to set it aside for some specific purpose, which is the case with urban development. But the Government has done nothing so far to allocate land for the West Papuan refugees in Port Moresby, even though only the Government has the mandate to find such a solution.”

Strangers in their own land

Sonny Karubaba says the long-running crisis and conflict are worsening, and predicts they are about to escalate sharply, as nationalist voices grow louder. At the beginning of the year, a pilot from New Zealand was kidnapped by rebel groups in West Papua, with Indonesia deploying military and militias in response.

“People are living in the bush, afraid to stay in their villages because of military operations,” Karubaba said. Humanitarians cannot access West Papua to verify, but it’s understood that tens of thousands of people have been displaced within West Papua.

But, if there were peace, would he go back to West Papua, to Japen Island from where his ancestors hailed? Karubaba explains that West Papua, which is half of an island but includes thousands of scattered islets, just like the rest of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea on the other half of the island, is no longer a home for him. He instinctively looks at his arms, which would be a different skin color than the majority of the population in West Papua now. Under the Government of Indonesia’s Transmigration program, Malays from other islands across Indonesia, with higher populations, were given incentives to relocate to West Papua, under-populated and spurned as an under-developed backwater. They receive government assistance to start businesses and get settled.

“Everything has changed. People don’t look like me. They don’t talk like me. They don’t dress like me. They don’t think the same way,” he said. He returned once, but says that he could not stay long.

“I find it hard to fit myself in that society. Those of us who crossed feel more at home in Papua New Guinea now.”

Asylum seekers continue to cross the border

Karubaba noted that, due to the escalation in violence, more people are crossing into Papua New Guinea, if they can reach it.

In addition to site improvement support received in Vanimo from the International Catholic Migration Commission, CBCPNGSI is speaking out more forcefully to make the plight of the West Papuans known. The Bishops Conference, through the Migrants and Refugees Desk, has been calling on the Government of Papua New Guinea to concretely and urgently assist the West Papuans living on the fringes in their midst. For one, CBCPNGSI is calling on the Government to allocate land for the West Papuans so that they have a legal title to the land, and thus can grow roots in their new communities, with support from that same indigenous community. Despite Papua New Guinea’s limited resources, with vast mineral resources and oil and natural gas reserves, providing support to West Papuan refugees and asylum seekers should be a feasible priority.

Secondly, the CBCPNGSI Migrants and Refugees Desk is advocating for the regularization of West Papuans in Papua New Guinea.  These refugees should be provided with identity papers so that they can work, attend schools, get driving licenses and all the administrative benefits people take for granted when they have regular migration status in the country where they live. Despite high unemployment in Papua New Guinea, West Papuans, if they can access formal education, can compete for jobs like anyone else. At present, most hawk snacks or resell small items on the street in the informal economy, because they cannot work legally without identity papers. Some collect bottles and cans for recycling, or sell firewood, but with the meagre dollars earned, the adults often eat one meal a day so that they can somehow feed their children. But sometimes the children go hungry too. Malnutrition among this population is high.

And much more could be needed if the current crisis on the other side of the border continues to deteriorate. This is a first and long overdue step: overdue for 40 years.


ICMC provides assistance and protection to vulnerable people on the move and advocates for sustainable solutions for refugees and migrants.