• West Papuan refugees and their children on Manus Island. (Stefan Armbruster SBS)
Almost half-a-century after Australia set up its first refugee processing centre on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, its West Papuan residents have been offered PNG citizenship.
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16 Jul - 2:28 PM  UPDATED 17 Jul - 11:07 AM

Australia's first refugee camp on Manus still stands, forgotten in time, and still houses some of the original West Papuan residents and their families.

Called 'Salasia Camp' by Australian authorities, it marked the start of refugee processing on Manus almost fifty years ago.

A handful of rusty corrugated iron houses on a bare concrete slab, stand a short distance from a beach on the edge of the island’s main town Lorengau.

It was built by Australia and used to avoid a diplomatic confrontation with neighbouring Indonesia by isolating a small number of influential West Papuans - also known as West Irians - on Manus.

Only few hundred metres away is the Australian-run refugee transit centre, across the island from the Lombrum detention centre, where hundreds of current day refugees are slowly being evicted as it is shuts down.

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Indonesia was preparing a military takeover of the former Dutch New Guinea colony in the 1960s, sparking a refugee crisis, with thousands of “border crossers" fleeing into the then Australian colony of PNG.

“We came as refugees to Manus Island. The [Australian] government transferred us,” said Manfred Meho, who arrived on Manus as a three-month-old on an Australian Caribou plane from camps near the Indonesian border.

“There was a political crisis, fighting in West Papua between the OPM (Organisasi Papua Merdeka or West Papua Freedom Movement) and Indonesian soldiers.

“Our parents, when they run away, they were supporters of West Papua.

“Papua Merdeka. Papua Merdeka means 'Papua independence’.”

Many were turned back by Australian patrol officers, called kiaps, on the border but a few dozen received “permissive residence” visas. The first were sent to Manus in 1968.

A handful of original West Papuan residents and their descendants still live at the camp, married into the local community, had children and even voted in PNG's current national elections.

Like thousands of West Papuans who have come to PNG since, they have lived without citizenship until now.

“We have quite a large number of West Irian Indonesian refugees in Papua New Guinea,” incumbent prime minister Peter O’Neill told SBS World News.

“In fact many of them, under this government, close to 10,000, are classified as eligible for Papua New Guinea citizenship and a few weeks ago the first 300 were able to participate in a ceremony resettling them in the country.”

Australia walks diplomatic tight-rope

In the 1960s Australia did not want the West Papuans but due to their numbers and PNG's remote terrain, could not turn them all back.

“[Australia] thought they were a nuisance, because potentially they caused a problem with the relationship with Indonesia,” said history professor Klaus Neumann, at Deakin University.

“Australia had not objected to Indonesia's takeover of the Dutch colony, and Australia had recognised Indonesia was now in charge of former Western New Guinea, so for Australia to grant refugee status posed a diplomatic problem.”

A disputed United Nations-sponsored "referendum" in 1969, known as the Act of Free Choice, secured Indonesia's takeover and saw it brutally suppress the independence struggle by West Papuans, that still continues.

In March this year, Vanuatu spoke on behalf of seven Pacific countries at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, calling on the UN to investigate allegations of serious and widespread abuses in Indonesia’s Papuan provinces. Indonesia rejected the allegations. 

When Australia signed the United Nations Refugee Convention in 1954, it was with an opt out clause, so it only applied to Europeans and conflicts before 1951.

But in 1964, Australia began issuing visas to a very small number of “border crossers”.

“These were people who were able to make a case they were being persecuted in Indonesian New Guinea, but Australia was very careful to say they were not refugees, in terms of 1951. It did not want to involve UNHCR, but wanted to keep them (UNHCR) out of the territory,” said Professor Neumann.

“There were two main reasons why Australia was not keen on them (West Papuans) staying on the border, where most ended up. They did not want the OPM to use Australian territory and use camps as safe havens after skirmishes on the Indonesian side,” said professor Neumann.

“They didn’t want some leaders to engage in anti-Indonesia propaganda. They didn’t want the permissive residence to engage in anti-Indonesian activities, and embarrass Indonesia, or get Papua New Guineans or expats to join them in protesting against Indonesia in West Papua.

“So they [Australian authorities] thought by sending them to the remotest place in PNG they would avoid that. Manus was much more difficult to access than mainland PNG for journalists.”

A show of hands and the Act of Free Choice

Two West Papuans Clemens Runawery and Willem Zonggonau, both now deceased, tried to bring international attention to the issue in 1969.

“Wim and I fled West Papua to New Guinea to fly to New York to inform the United Nations that the Act of Free Choice was corrupt,” Mr Runawery said in an Australian television political advertisement in 2007.

The Act of Free Choice was a vote by 1,025 men and women in West Papua chosen by the Indonesian military, and by a show of hands were asked give up sovereignty and become part of Indonesia.

“We were forced off the plane by Australian officials, under pressure from Indonesia’s military regime. We were never able to tell the true facts at the United Nations," Mr Runawery said.

They were questioned by ASIO and sent to Manus, along with dozens of other refugees.

“As a holding centre which is well situated away from Border Districts and where communication with West Irian is reasonably difficult, Salasia Camp, Manus serves its purpose well,” the head of the Department of External Territories wrote to his counterpart in Foreign Affairs in February 1972.

“While a camp on the mainland would give the West Irians a better opportunity for finding employment it also would defeat the purpose of getting them away from easy access for communication and return to West Irian”.

“It is considered that the Manus Camp should be maintained as at present, and that allegations about conditions in, and health of the occupants, are completely without foundation.”

How the Manus camp became permanent

The Australian government was sensitive to criticism and Manus Island’s remoteness and lack of information had started rumours.

Back in 1968 the then Mr Michael Somare, later to become the country’s first prime minister, speaking to a motion on the issue of 'border crossers' in PNG’s pre-independence parliament said he “had heard the refugees on Manus had been placed in a camp near the police station”.

“This could be compared with the Second World War when the Jews were placed in concentration camps,” he said.

He added that PNG is a “free country” and the refugees should be treated fairly and found jobs.

In May 1969, journalist Jack McCarthy went to Manus for South Pacific Post and filed a story headlined 'Refugee ‘prisoners’ live without hope' and reported they existed in depressing conditions.

The Australian government sent an official to investigate and he reported the camp was in good condition but there was widespread unemployment.

Salasia Camp was “unsuitable” and Manus “too small” for the refugees to find employment but it was recommended “full rations only be issued on a ‘dole’ basis, that is the recipients be obliged to do public works, no matter how menial, in return.”

“If, and this is the big one, there is an acceptance by the people living in West Irian of the result of the plebiscite [Act of Free Choice], with necessary relaxation and change in administrative policy by the Indonesians, the permissive residents seeing no rosy future in Papua New Guinea would possibly take the chance of going home,” the report to the director of the Department of District Administration said.

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In February 1972 there were 73 people at the camp and “43 adult males with 69 dependants and one adult female (widowed) with one dependant child” had been processed, a report from the Department of External Territories in 1972 states.

Of these three had returned home “of their own volition”, one went to Holland and 39 men and their dependants “found employment and have re-settled in various centres throughout Papua New Guinea”.

“Initially it was thought this would be a holding centre until after their requests for permissive residence was decided on,” said professor Neumann.

“Some stayed much longer. The Manus camp became permanent.”

“The holding camp was not a detention centre, it did not have a barbed wire fence around it, people could come and go as they wanted to,” said professor Neumann.

“In fact the authorites wanted them to find work and were quite upset that they weren't, they wanted the kids to go to school, so in that sense, it wasn't at all like a detention centre.”

Manfred Meho has spent most of his life living in the camp.

“It’s a good life. Manus people are good. All house here were built by the government, from when we first walked in,” he said.

Australia spent $15,000 on the construction of 12 houses on a large concrete slab and a community hall at one end.

Manfred Meho remembers when life in the camp changed.

“The supply of food. In 1975 or 1976, the [Australian government] food supply stopped,” he said.

As PNG became self-governing 1973, ahead of independence two years later, responsibility for the permissive residence visa holders was transferred away from Australia.

“As soon as PNG became self-governing, Australia signed on to the 1967 protocol to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, that meant Australia no longer subscribed the geographical and temporal limitations of the convention,” professor Neumann said.

Most of the original refugees have now passed away or moved on to elsewhere in PNG, and some returned to Indonesia's Papuan provinces.

At annual PNG-Indonesian border liaison talks held on Manus in 2005, Indonesia's ambassador renewed the offer of voluntary repatriation to the West Papuans.

'Life here is good'

Amos Kimbri was born to West Papuan parents at the Manus camp in the mid-1970s. His father lives in PNG but his mother went back across the border.

In 2010 he returned to the homeland he had never seen.

“We repatriated, I went to West Papua, I went back. I feel the life is good here. I’ve travelled to West Papua and the life is too hard,” he said.

“Like we are sitting here, we are free, no problem, but in West Papua we have many problems,” said Mr Kimbri describing difficultlies accessing land, making it hard to grow food, and lack of schools for his children.

“I was there when they were shooting people [in West Papua]. They told us we can't hold a flag for West Papua, when we hold the flag they will kill us, so I and my wife and son and daughter came back to PNG,” he said.

Amos hopes to visit his elderly mother in West Papua again but does not have a passport.

“I’m not a PNG citizen, I haven’t signed a form yet. I travel on a temporary passport,” he said.

“At the office in Vanimo (on the border), the Indonesian office, I take an ID and photo and they put it in a pass and I travel”.

Manfred Meho has never been back but has worked as a merchant seaman.

“We travel out. We are seamen, we travel out to Singapore, Philippines, Vietnam,” he said.

“I have a travel passport but I don't have citizenship. We don’t have citizenship but our names are on the electoral roll in Manus.

“We vote, we vote as Manusians, but we are still waiting on citizenship.”

Now after almost five stateless decades, the PNG has made them an offer.

“Last month migration officials came to talk with us about giving citizenship but they haven’t come back yet,” he said.

Manfred Meho is almost 50 now, married to a local, has four children and is happy on Manus. Returning to a free West Papua is a distant dream.

“People are unhappy when they think about home and they feel sorry, but life here is good,” he said.

“Manus people are good. We go fishing, we go bush, we make gardens, we give sago, and they are friendly to us.”