Storm brewing for Australia over boat arrival of West Papuans
Australia's new government is facing an early test of both its asylum seeker policy and its position on West Papua after a group of seven West Papuans reached the Torres Strait after fleeing Merauke in Indonesia's Papua province this week.
Australia's new government is facing an early test of both its asylum seeker policy and its position on West Papua.
Seven West Papuans - a 10 year old boy, a woman and 5 men - reached the Torres Strait after fleeing Merauke in Indonesia's Papua province this week.
It's understood they fled due to ongoing intimidation and surveillance by security forces since their involvement in the West Papua Freedom Flotilla campaign this month.
Johnny Blades has been tracking events.
The West Papuans were detained by Australia's Immigration Department after reaching Boigu Island by boat on Tuesday. They had been involved in a ceremonial exchange with Australian indigenous elders on board the flotilla earlier this month. The widely publicised flotilla, a group of Australia-based activists highlighting the West Papuan self-determination cause, was denied entry to Indonesia, but was met near the sea border by West Papuans on boat. The flotilla campaign's spokesman, Ruben Blake, says they have strong evidence that the seven were persecuted in the following days by Indonesian security forces.
RUBEN BLAKE: We do have fears for their safety and that if they were to be - as the Australian prime minister would have it - their boat turned back to Indonesia, that would be a major safety concern as they'd be returned directly to the place where they've fled from persecution.
Immigration hasn't responded yet to questions about the West Papuans. Regular releases on boat arrivals under Australia's previous government have been replaced by a weekly briefing. The new Immigration Minister Scott Morrison says withholding ongoing information is crucial to efforts to stem the arrivals. However Immigration secretly spirited the group to Port Moresby overnight, according to a West Papuan activist who received a distressed phone call from the PNG capital in the early hours of the morning. Ronny Kareni says the group claim they've been denied access to a lawyer, and it's unclear whether they will be flown to Manus Island for processing with other asylum seekers, or left in Port Moresby where they could be in danger of repatriation.
RONNY KARENI: That's the biggest fear of them being taken there. And given the current climate with the political situation, and these guys have already been exposed through the campaign with the freedom flotilla and then seeking protection and then the Australian government just takes them and secretly dumps them there. It's really shocking.
The boat arrival comes at a time of renewed friction between Australia and Indonesia with Jakarta this week strongly criticising its neighbour over the government's new policy of turning back boats carrying asylum seekers. Australia's Prime Minister Tony Abbott has described the tensions as a passing irritant.
TONY ABBOTT: We are working together very well with the Indonesians, but we can do better in the future. And we absolutely respect Indonesia's sovereignty and we would never do or propose anything which is contrary to that.
Yet Canberra would be anxious to avoid the major diplomatic stoush that erupted in 2006 when Australia felt compelled to accept the asylum claims of 43 West Papuans who had been forced to flee from the Indonesian security forces. It was only the signing later that year of the Lombok Treaty between Australia and Indonesia that put their relationship back on track. Jim Elmslie of the West Papua Project at Sydney University says the Treaty provides that each country won't allow activities in their own territory that constitute a threat to the stability, sovereignty or territorial integrity of the other.
JIM ELSMLIE: Including the use of their territory for encouraging or committing activities like separatism. Now, when the flotilla was organised and sent off to Australia, voices in Indonesia were saying that Australia was, in effect, breaching the treaty because we were allowing a vessel with people on it that were sort of questioning sovereignty over West Papua, Indonesian sovereignty.
Jim Elmslie suggests the latest incident has the capacity to damage the Lombok Treaty. But while West Papua activists fear that the group of seven will be returned to Indonesia, he says Australia's international obligations under conventions on refugees who are fleeing persecution should prevent that. However Canberra is facing a confluence of two of the most difficult aspects of its relationship with Indonesia, ensuring Tony Abbott will have plenty to discuss in his first bilateral talks with Indonesia's president next week in Jakarta.
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