West Papua: Australia backs Indonesian repression, abandons asylum seekers

Activists with West Papua's national flag, the Morning Star.

Three West Papuan activists scaled the walls of the Australian consulate in Bali on October 6, during the APEC meeting on the island, to seek refuge and demand that foreigners be allowed to freely enter West Papua.

The Australian government, however, took the opportunity to reaffirm its long-standing support for Indonesia's occupation of West Papua.

The three men, Rofinus Yanggam, Markus Jerewon and Yuvensius Goo, presented their letter to Australian Consul-General Brett Farmer in the early morning. It asked the APEC leaders in Bali, including US State Secretary John Kerry and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott “to persuade the Indonesian government to treat Papuan people better”.

The Department of Foreign affairs claims the men left voluntarily, but reports suggest they were threatened by consulate staff. A man who spoke to the activists by phone while they were in the consulate told Fairfax Media he overheard a “loud” and “arrogant” Australian voice saying: “You cannot stay here. You have to leave … We will call the police.”

The men are now being followed by Indonesian authorities. Yanggam told The Guardian: “Yesterday we came to our friend’s house and two intelligence officers came past the front of our house [and looked in]. They came back in the night-time. We don’t feel safe at this moment.”

Abbott followed up on the consulate's hostility, telling a press conference the next day: “We have a very strong relationship with Indonesia and we are not going to give people a platform to grandstand against Indonesia ... please don’t look to do it in Australia. You are not welcome.”

Repeating the same line as the former Labor government, Abbott said: “Australia absolutely respects the territorial integrity of Indonesia..

He added: “The situation in West Papua is getting better, not worse, and I want to acknowledge the work that President Yudhoyono has done to provide greater autonomy, to provide a better level of government services and ultimately a better life for the people of West Papua”.

Abbott claimed: “The people of West Papua are much better off as part of a strong, dynamic and increasingly prosperous Indonesia.”

But experts on the human rights situation in West Papua have presented a very different view on life under Indonesian occupation.

Dr Jim Elmslie, a co-convener of the West Papua Project, told Fairfax Media's Breaking Politics: “Many tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of people have perished directly as a result of military and police actions and also as a result of conditions that have been forced upon them … That's why we characterise what has gone on there as a genocide or as a potential genocide in need of further investigation.”

Elaine Pearson, Australian director of Human Rights Watch, said: “I don't think the situation is getting better; you'd only say that if you were blind and deaf to the situation.”

Further information on the true situation may be easier to gather now that Indonesia has promised to relax its ban on journalists entering West Papua. This is likely to be a response to the attention focused on the country by the Australian consulate incident.

The rude ejection of the Papuans from the Bali consulate may have been motivated by the dilemma already facing the Australian government, after seven West Papuan activists sought asylum on September 24.

The seven, who fled West Papua fearing government reprisal for being involved in the Freedom Flotilla from Australia, were immediately deported to Port Moresby and placed under the responsibility of the PNG government.

Immigration minister Scott Morrison admitted the deportations required a “concession” in a 2003 Memorandum of Understanding between the two countries. The West Papuans are pursuing this irregularity as a possible legal challenge to allow their asylum claim in Australia rather than PNG.

Yacob Mandabayan, one of the seven, told World News Australia Radio: “We don't want to stay as refugee in Papua New Guinea and we don't want to go back to Indonesia ... in Papua New Guinea [it is] not safe enough here.

“Refugees in Papua New Guinea have no clear status here, they have no rights to get a good job and good life in Papua New Guinea … Australian government has the responsibility of us.”