Access to citizenship could prove the best hope yet for thousands of West Papuan refugees living in Papua New Guinea.
“I want citizenship. I’ve been here 28 years and want to get on with my life,” said Donatus Karuri, a 57-year-old father of six, outside the shelter he shares with five other families at the Hohola refugee settlement. It is one of four settlements for West Papuan refugees in the capital Port Moresby.
Like most West Papuan refugees, he is unable to work legally and has only limited access to public services.
According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), there are more than 9,000 West Papuan refugees in PNG today, many of whom have been in the Pacific island nation for over three decades.
Others know no other home and can’t imagine living anywhere else.
“I was born here. This is the only country I know,” said Dan Hanasbey, 27, another refugee wanting citizenship.
Flight From Indonesia
Between 1984 and 1986, more than 11,000 West Papuans fled east into PNG from the western, Indonesian half of New Guinea Island to escape political turmoil and economic discontent; the area’s longstanding secessionist sentiments towards Jakarta continue to simmer today.
West Province, a former Dutch colony rich in natural resources, was later divided into two separate provinces — Papua and West Papua — however, indigenous West Papuans continue to refer to the entire Indonesian area as West Papua.
At the time the refugees arrived, the PNG government was not yet a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention. It granted the West Papuans prima facie refugee status shortly after accession to the convention in 1986 — but with seven reservations, including Article 34 on naturalization.
Of the close to 9,300 West Papuan refugees in PNG today, almost half live along the border area with Indonesia.
Another 2,435 live in urban areas, while 2,290 live in East Awin, the only officially sanctioned area for West Papuan refugees to settle. There, regular assistance is available and access to 6,000 hectares of government land is provided — about 120 kilometers from the Indonesian border. The site was established in an effort to resettle the refugees away from the border areas to avoid possible political problems with the Indonesian government.
Those who resettle in the area for six months are provided permissive residency permits (PRPs), which allow them certain rights, including the right to work and travel internally (excluding border areas), and gives them access to health and education services.
Few refugees, however, wish to resettle in East Awin, preferring instead to stay close to the border area and their land and families on the other side. Others frown upon its remote jungle location and inaccessibility.
The government estimates only 40 percent of West Papuan refugees hold PRPs. As a result, most survive on subsistence farming — particularly in the border area. Those in urban settings live on private or government land, under constant risk of eviction, and often work illegally.
The Cost of Citizenship
Despite these challenges, many West Papuans — who share a similar Melanesian ancestry to Papua New Guineans — have integrated well in this nation of 7.3 million and would like to stay.
“Local integration with the opportunity to be granted PNG citizenship is the best solution for many West Papuan refugees under the current circumstances,” Walpurga Englbrecht, UNHCR country representative for PNG, told IRIN.
“The problem, however, is the application fee is too high.”
Under PNG law, any foreigner — including refugees — wishing to apply to citizenship and who has fulfilled eight years of residency must pay a 10,000 kina ($5,000) application fee.
“We can’t afford that. It’s impossible,” Freddy Warome, 58, a West Papuan community leader, complained.
Under Article 34 of the Refugee Convention, signatory states should facilitate the assimilation and naturalisation of refugees, and make every effort to expedite naturalisation and reduce the costs as far as possible.
To date, the PNG government appears mindful of this responsibility, but it remains unclear when they might act upon it.
Speaking at a 2011 ministerial meeting to mark the 60th anniversary of the Refugee Convention, Moses Manwau, PNG’s former vice minister for foreign affairs and immigration, confirmed the government’s commitment to withdrawing its earlier reservations to the Convention, and to waiving all fees or introducing nominal fees for refugees seeking naturalization.
“We are determined to give refugees the kind of life, liberty, peace and prosperity they deserve so that they can hold their own against any other citizens in Papua New Guinea,” he said.
UNHCR believes there should be a path to citizenship for those who desire it, while those West Papuans lacking PRPs who would like to remain in the country should be provided PRPs without having to relocate to East Awin, Englbrecht said.