Port Moresby (AsiaNews) - Goroka-based Fr Franco Zocca, SVD, has been involved in the West Papua refugee crisis for the last 25 years. He recently travelled to the Western Province of Papua New Guinea (PNG) to assess the situation at the Iowara Refugee Camp just inside the border from Indonesia.
What is the situation at the border right now?
We have scattered communities of refugees all along the border. Then we still have the Iowara Refugee Camp in Western Province. It was established in 1987 by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Its purpose was to "relocate" West Papuan refugees, about 12,000 of whom had crossed the 750 km border between PNG and Indonesia's Irian Jaya province (as it was then known) to avoid clashes with the Indonesian military. Only about a third of the refugees took up the offer of relocation. The rest choose to settle along the border or to be repatriated. The camp can be reached from Kiunga, Western Province, after a half-hour trip by dinghy upstream on the Fly River and a few hour drive along 40km of very bad road.
You just visited Iowara . . .
Yes, I went back there after 19 years invited by Bishop Gilles Cote' of the Catholic Diocese of Daru-Kiunga. In 1994 there were 3636 people living in the camp. But in October 2013, I counted only 2,190. Why the drop in number when over the past 19 years there has been hundreds of new arrivals and a very high birth rate? There are various reasons. One is that in 1997 and 2003, the PNG Government offered Iowara refugees permanent residency (but not citizenship), with the result that many left the camp and settled elsewhere in PNG. Many left because they were skilled and could find work, or because they wanted to join relatives elsewhere in PNG or back in West Papua. More than 500 refugees are now settled in Kiunga. Those who remain at Iowara are mainly subsistence farmers.
Are children being educated?
Because so many people have left, four out of the 16 villages settled in 1994 are now completely abandoned. The number of students enrolled in the elementary, community and primary schools has dropped from 1023 in 1994 to the present 694. In the past, the Indonesian language was used in school. But in 1997, the camp schools were officially registered with the PNG National Education Department, and classes are now conducted in English. Dozens of students from Iowara are now receiving secondary and vocational education in Kiunga. The Catholic Diocese of Daru-Kiunga, through its agencies, continues to be responsible for education and health services at the camp. Beside the health centre, which has been expanded with a maternity ward, a Voluntary Counselling and Testing Centre for HIV-AIDS and a TB clinic, four new aid posts have been built. In partnership with the Jesuit Refugee Service, the Catholic Diocese has established an office, run by the Mercy Sisters from Australia, which provides assistance to the refugees and scholarships for their tertiary students.
How is life for people away from their place of origin?
The Iowara residents look much more at ease today than they did 19 years ago. Tension and conflict with the original landowners has mostly died away since the PNG Government purchased more than 6000 hectares of land for them. Tensions also reduced with the departure of militant refugees obsessed with West Papuan independence. Occasionally however, tensions do arise between refugees of different tribal background. The PNG Government's Department of Provincial and Local Government and Border Affairs has managed Iowara since 1987 through an administrator and several assistants. The refugees are also governed by the Iowara Central Committee, an elected body established by the United Nations, whose members are chosen from the refugees and local landowners residing in the camp. Unfortunately, as I also discovered back in 1994, the Central Committee is not working properly. There is mistrust between members, misuse of funds, and ethnic tensions.
So, what is the actual involvement of the United Nations, the PNG Government and the Catholic Church in Iowara?
The United Nations have not maintained a continuous involvement with the West Papuans in PNG. From 1987 till 1996, they had an office and a representative in Port Moresby. The office was closed in 1996 and reopened 11 years later only to be closed again in 2013. The United Nations want the PNG National and Provincial Governments to take complete ownership of Iowara. In this context, in January 2013 a formal agreement was signed "on continuous service delivery and sector support for Refugees in Iowara-East Awin after United Nations phase out". The signatories were the Secretary of the Department of Provincial and Local Level Governments, the Provincial Administrator of Fly River Provincial Government, the Catholic Bishop of Daru-Kiunga, the chairman of the Iowara Central Committee, and the outgoing representative of the Unite Nations office. The refugees I interviewed were quite sceptical about the new agreement. They see the heavy machinery for road maintenance granted to them by several agencies not being used but left to rust for luck of fuel and operators; they don't see people from the Provincial and North Fly district administrations showing interest in their development; and they doubt that money assigned to them will be ever put to good use. They are now pinning their hopes on a company that plans to extract nearby oil and gas to improve their road and provide jobs for their youth. The Catholic Church is now virtually left alone to cater at least for health and education in Iowara.
In your opinion, what should the PNG government do at this point in time?
Now after 20-30 years in the country these people should be granted citizenship. Otherwise they can live in PNG, but they cannot travel abroad. Recently three candidates of the Daughters of Wisdom could not travel to the Philippines for their year of Novitiate to become members of the Congregation. This constitutes a serious violation of human rights, religious freedom and freedom of movement in this case. Thousands of West Papua children born in PNG have a birth certificate, grow up the same way and receive the same education of PNG children but are not citizens. They will not be able to vote in elections or to travel abroad. But they are Melanesian brothers and sisters, much more that the Asian refugees for whom Australia and PNG now invest so much in Manus Island. (G.L.)
* Missionary with the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions in Papua New Guinea