A group of West Papuan asylum seekers arrived in Australia on September 24, defying the Australian government and potentially raising already high tensions between Australia and Indonesia over asylum seekers.
The group of West Papuans includes six adults and a child. It has been reported the group had some connection to the West Papua Freedom flotilla, in which supporters of freedom for West Papua tried to sail to the Indonesian-occupied territory. The flotilla sparked by Indonesian authorities on its West Papuan organisers.
The original plan was to welcome the flotilla in the Papuan port city Merauke. But the head of police and intelligence officers hand-delivered a letter to an organiser, prohibiting any ceremonies from taking place. The organiser's house was then surrounded by police.
This repression forced the welcoming ceremony to take place in secret. Wile international attention was focused on the flotilla's one remaining vessel, The Pog, as it continued towards Indonesian waters, a small group of activists travelled to the secret location at a remote beach.
As well as raising international attention about the Indonesia's occupation of West Papua, the flotilla was also an important cultural meeting. Flotilla activists, including Aboriginal elder Kevin Buzzacott, presented water from the sacred springs of Lake Eyre and ashes from Aboriginal tent embassies.
John Wog, elder of the Marin tribe of Merauke, said: “In a sacred site near Marauke, I released a canoe to sail out to meet the Flotilla boat as a symbol of connecting the spirit of our ancestors.
“Thank God for Uncle Kevin Buzzacott, who already brought our ancestral spirit back to reconnect us with the land and hope for our struggle for independence.”
Returning from the historic event, Buzzacott said: “We came in peace, not like those other politicians who are coming selling arms to the Indonesian military, like the Americans who just last month sold them Apache attack choppers, those are to be used against West Papuans, and they know it.”
The possible use of arms against the flotilla and West Papuan supporters led The Pog to turn around and return to Australia, having completed the cultural exchange.
The hostile attitude of the Australian government towards the flotilla also contributed to the decision. Australia strongly supports Indonesia's occupation.
When the flotilla left, then-foreign minister Bob Carr said: “We don't believe we're under any obligation, if they get into trouble, to have our diplomats spending whole days of their time seeing them in prison or making representations to the government of Indonesia or Papua New Guinea.”
New foreign minister Julie Bishop said at the time: “The so-called flotilla has indicated its intention to deliberately breach Indonesia's territorial sovereignty, thus placing themselves at risk of interception and arrest by the Indonesian authorities.”
Meanwhile, Indonesian authorities began hunting for West Papuans linked to the flotilla. Yacob Mechrian Mandabayan, who took part in the ceremony, told The Guardian: “I need to inform you about the situation in Merauke — it is not safe ... I and my friends already evacuated and [we're] hiding in a safe place, but cannot stay long”.
“The military threatened me,” he said, adding that there was “ongoing surveillance around the house at night and during the day”.
“They are trying to identify [whether] me and other cousins were involved directly with the flotilla or not ... We've become refugees in our own country and we ask your help to expose our situation here.”
On September 18, four West Papuan community leaders were arrested for allegedly being involved in planning welcome ceremonies for the flotilla. They face possible treason charges.
It is this repression that the West Papuans who arrived in Australia are fleeing. A friend of the group told The Australian he spoke to people believed to be part of the group shortly before they left for Australia. He said they were desperate to escape torture and death under Indonesian rule.
He said: “Do you know the risk you are taking, given refugees have been sent to Manus Island or Nauru?
“They were telling me it's better to seek protection than be hunted and intimidated or to be tortured or die in an Indonesian prison.”
Ian Rintoul, an activist from Sydney's Refugee Action Coalition, told ABC Radio: “We are extremely concerned that the government could try to send them to Nauru or to Manus Island, which is part of PNG ... certainly there's been no indication whatsoever the PNG government has been willing to grant refugee status or permanent protection in any kind of way to other asylum seekers, refugees from West Papua.”
PNG does not support self-determination for its West Papuan neighbours in a bid to maintain good relations with Indonesia. Thousands of West Papuan exiles who have fled to PNG still have no permanent rights to live and work there.