West Papuans, ex Manus detainees, internally displaced persons: dignity for all refugees
by Giorgio Licini *

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands issued an appeal for World Refugee Day. Another 10 families from the Indonesian province bordering PNG have recently arrived in Vanimo, joining 12,000 who arrived in the last 30 years. The new Australian government is asked to provide medical assistance to the 104 former deportees on Manus Island still left in the country.

Port Moresby (AsiaNews) – On the occasion of World Refugee Day, which is celebrated today, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands has released the following statement signed by its general secretary, PIME missionary Fr Giorgio Licini, relating to the various aspects of the issue in Papua New Guinea and the urgent need to act.

Today, the world is reminded of the stories and journeys of a special group of people who live among us. The 20th of June 2022 is World Refugee Day. In Papua New Guinea, we gather to acknowledge the refugees that live among us. We have refugees from West Papua who have been living in PNG for more than three decades. We have asylum seekers who have been taken to PNG from Australia in 2013. We have refugees and asylum seekers from several other countries including Pakistan, Bangladesh and Ecuador who came individually to seek safety in PNG.

For these people, the Catholic Bishops Conference, and the respective dioceses, together with like-minded NGOs, and relevant State actors are uniting to raise awareness, but more so to raise the visibility of their plight for the responsible authorities to take appropriate and humane actions to bring an end to their suffering and give them hope for better lives that all of us deserve.

THE WEST PAPUANS. There are about 12 thousand Melanesians from West Papua now living in PNG, mainly in the National Capital District (NCD), Western, and Sandaun provinces. On this occasion I want to make a call to the government of Papua New to take reasonable steps with concrete actions to facilitate their integration into our society. I want to highlight some of the main and prolonged barriers that continue to hamper the West Papuans to meaningfully integrate into PNG society. These include prolonged refugee processing, lack of government issued identity documentation, and importantly land concessions. In Port Moresby, more than 200 families live in squatter settlements with imminent threat of eviction. In fact, some of them have been evicted five times from one place to another, to be finally allowed to squat on a waste land at Rainbow in the Gerehu suburb. This is a painful story, at least as painful as taking children out of school, going without food for days and sleeping in the cold in open parks.

In Vanimo, ten families arrived from West Papua on 17th November 2022. Their situation needs prompt and decisive government intervention. Being rejected by a few villages due to concerns over resource competition, they have now been allowed to settle in temporarily. However, government action is still very slow, leaving these vulnerable people exposed to more risks. Absence of proper land allocation and legal arrangements has made life for West Papuan very difficult. Furthermore, the West Papua Iowara refugee camp in Western province needs to be better connected by road to the rest of the province and to Kiunga town.

THE 2013 REGIONAL RESETTLEMENT ARRANGEMENT. Of the 1523 men forcibly transferred to Manus Is. from Australia in 2013 under the Regional Resettlement Arrangement, 104 remain in PNG, mainly of Middle East and Asian origin. There is particularly and extreme concern for the elderly and a dozen with a variety of chronic health issues whose conditions will soon descend into utter despair and physical destitution. For them we have a specific request to the new Australian government to open a new medivac pathway to properly address issues of mental health, but also cardiovascular conditions, fractured bones, skin diseases, etc.

INTERNALLY DISPLACED PEOPLE. Internally, we have people who are being forced out of their homes because of sorcery practices and accusations, conflicts, natural disasters, and increasingly the impacts of climate change and rising sea levels. These people need our welcome too. They need our prayers and solidarity. To be a responsible government and society, we must not exclude those who need our help, those who cannot support themselves, and those who lost their livelihoods. The government and all the stakeholders including the Churches must work together for these persons. To achieve prosperity and meaningful life we must all journey together. On 7 June 2022 in Madang, we launched the Catholic Safe House Association with the support of Caritas Australia with the idea of increasing the number (currently half a dozen) of places where mainly victims of sorcery related violence can find shelter and support.

MIGRANT WORKERS. We must also not lose sight of those who come to work in our country. The migrant workers provide an important pool of skills and labor that we need as a country to grow. The logging, fishery, and the retail trade industries host a big number of migrant workforces. They are a part of our people and communities. We must look after them, welcome them and learn from them. But we also expect them to respect our laws and our cultures. If they break our laws, they must be afforded humane treatment within the confines of the laws to face penalties. Arbitrary detention and punishment with impunity should not be a way of dealing with migrants contravening our laws. We are a nation built on a constitution that is rooted in Christianity and democratic principles.

HUMAN TRAFFICKING. Before I finish, I would like to remind the government and all of us to be vigilant against human trafficking. Human trafficking takes a variety of forms and happens every day in our communities, workplaces, industrial areas, between different provinces and at our international borders. Victims of human trafficking can be anyone, but mostly the vulnerable people like the children. Women, men, young boys and girls and old people can become victims of human trafficking. It is a serious crime that is often hard to detect because it takes place in subtle forms. Sex trafficking is now common in the urban centers in PNG as the living standards become more expensive. Family members and victims of human rights abuses are more vulnerable to exploitation or trafficking.

The theme for the World Refugee Day this year, “Whoever, Whenever, Whatever, Everyone has the right to seek safety”, reminds us that we need each other. We seek safety through each other, and through the government that we ourselves put in place to protect us. Refugees, IDPs, migrant workers and victims of human trafficking, they all need to be protected and supported by the government and those in a position of making decisions for the people.              

* Secretary General of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands