Manus Island’s forgotten refugees

Australia’s first refugee processing centre on Manus still stands, housing West Papuans.

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Some of the refugees still live in the camp, built when PNG was an Australian colony.

There is a place on Manus island in Papua New Guinea lost in time and forgotten in Australian history.

Manfred Meho was just three months old when he arrived.

“Our parents, when they ran away, we came as refugees to Manus Island. The government transferred us to Manus, our parents. At the time I was a child, maybe three or four months old.”

Thousands fled Indonesia’s takeover of Dutch New Guinea in the 1960s into the then-Australian colony of Papua and New Guinea.

“Papua Merdaka. Papua Merdaka means ‘Papua independence’.”

About 50 years ago, the Australian government built houses on Manus to isolate politically active refugees from what is now known as West Papua.

Several dozen ended up on Manus, marking the start of the use of the island for refugee processing.

Professor Klaus Neumann, a historian from Deakin University, says Australia needed to find a way to avoid diplomatic embarrassment.

“They thought they were a nuisance, because potentially they caused a problem with Australia’s relationship with Indonesia. Australia had not objected to Indonesia’s takeover of the Dutch colony, and Australia had recognised that Indonesia was now in charge of former Western New Guinea, so for Australia to grant refugee status to these people would have posed a diplomatic problem.”

A disputed UN-sponsored referendum, known as the Act of Free Choice, secured Indonesia’s takeover.

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

Clemens Runawery told what happened in an Australian political television advertisement from ten years ago.

“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. We were forced off the plane by Australian government officials.”

In 1969 they were sent to Manus, along with dozens of other refugees.

The camp is just a hundred metres away from Australia’s current refugee transit centre in the remote island’s capital, Lorengau.

Klaus Neumann says it would be wrong to compare it to today’s detention centre.

“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. In fact the administration was quite upset that they were not working, they wanted them to work in Lorengau or somewhere on Manus Island, they wanted the kids to go to school, so in that sense it wasn’t at all like a detention centre.”

Most of the original refugees have now died or moved elsewhere in PNG.

Some returned to Indonesia’s Papuan provinces, like Amos Kimbri.

“They told us if we hold a flag for West Papua, then they will kill us, so I and my wife and son and daughter went back again to PNG.”

On PNG’s independence in 1975, Australia took no responsibility for these refugees.

Now after almost five stateless decades, the incumbent PNG government of Prime Minister Peter O’Neill has made them an offer.

“We have quite a large number of West Irian Indonesian refugees in PNG. Under this government, close to 10,000, are classified as eligible for PNG citizenship and a few weeks ago the first 300 were able to participate in a ceremony resettling them in the country.”

One of the last original West Papuan refugees, Manfred Meho, welcomes the offer of citizenship.

“Last month migration officials come to us and tok to mepla to givem displa citizenship yeah.”

But for those remaining refugees on Manus, returning to a free West Papua still remains a distant dream.