1 Oct 2013

Uncertainty surrounds West Papuans deported to PNG by Australia

9:47 pm on 1 October 2013

The International Organisation for Migration says it's up to Papua New Guinea authorities as to what happens to seven West Papuans transferred to Port Moresby last week.

The seven, who arrived in the Torres Strait last week claiming to be fleeing persecution by the Indonesian security forces for their work as activists, were transferred to Port Moresby by Australian Immigration officials.

The West Papuans claim Australian Immigration officials have washed their hands of them by dumping them in Port Moresby where they are in danger of being repatriated.

Johnny Blades reports:

Speaking from the Port Moresby hotel where the IOM has put them up, the West Papuan asylum seekers say they don't know what's going on. One of the group, Yacob Mandabayan, says that since they reached Australia's Boigu Island by boat a week ago, they've been denied access to a lawyer. He says after being grilled by Australian officials, they were put on an aircraft believing they were destined for the mainland, only to be later told they were going to PNG.

YACOB MANDABAYAN: The Australian government, or Australian immigration, they have the responsibility for us. They cannot just put us in here, in Port Moresby, because we did not come to PNG, we came to Australia. We already put our bodies on an Australian island for three days, so they have to take us or give us a lawyer.

While the IOM is looking after the group's humanitarian needs, its chief of mission in PNG, George Gigauri, says local authorities are processing the details of the West Papuans to determine what happens.

They're still being processed by the immigration and citizenship service authority of the PNG government. In other words, the determination process is on-going, and the latest that I have is it will be decided this week. So once that decision is made, obviously depending on what the decision is we'll take it from there. But for now the determination process is on-going.

However, Yacob Mandabayan says they are seeking asylum in Australia, not PNG.

YACOB MANDABAYAN: Yeah, yeah. We have had some interviews from the immigration office about our basic information. But it doesn't make sense. Why I say it doesn't make sense is the Australian government put us in here, so there must be any documents from the Australian government to the PNG government about us.

He says his group, including a 10 year old child, had to flee Indonesia because some of them are human rights activists and had come under constant scrutiny and harassment by security forces, making it clear that their lives were in danger. Yacob Mandabayan says they are afraid about what will happen to them, not least because they believe that in PNG, where thousands of West Papuan refugees blend in to society, they are in danger of being repatriated. PNG's Foreign Minister Rimbink Pato recently denied that an extradition treaty recently signed with Indonesia means West Papuans will be sent back.

RIMBINK PATO: We don't see that as an issue with the Indonesian government because no such issue has arisen in recent times. There have been problems in the past, but we don't see those as areas of concern, and we'll be able to handle them together.

The Australian government has so far declined all comment about last week's deportation of asylum seekers to PNG. However the Australia-based Refugee Action Coalition says Canberra has acted unlawfully in transferring the seven West Papuans to Papua New Guinea.

Its spokesperson, Ian Rintoul, says the government has indicated it acted in line with a 2003 Memorandum of Understanding, which allows Australia to return asylum seekers to PNG if they have come through PNG. But Mr Rintoul says the MOU requires those people to have been in PNG for seven days or more, and the West Papuans were there for just two. He says the MOU also requires those who are returned to have their refugee processing done in PNG - but there are questions as to whether PNG has the intent or ability to do this.