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The brutal life of West Papuan refugees in PNG

"Even in the hell of life, God reminds us of the beautiful gift of children. I reached out my hand as tears rolled down my eyes. Their gentle hands were rich in kindness, gratitude and smiles. I could not speak"

West Papuan refugees at Hohola with visitors from Caritas and the Catholic Bishops Conference who have supported them in Port Moresby and PNG’s border provinces (Reilly Kanamon)


PORT MORESBY – The plea from the West Papuan refugees in Port Moresby was resounding.

“All we long for now is a piece of land we can own. A piece of land that is all we need to rebuild ourselves, that is home to us.”

Secondary to that entreaty was the call for recognition and identity as persons with dignity and freedom of livelihood.

“Most of us are without any identity and can’t get a national identity card or passport with our refugee status.

“This means we can’t open bank accounts or travel overseas and are restricted in accessing public services such as health and education which require formal identity.”

The situation of the refugees in Hohola One Urban was unimaginable.

But the mothers and children walked out of makeshift shelters to greet us with smiles.

They still had hope for a better tomorrow, although nothing seemed promising.

This is Port Moresby, the capital city of Papua New Guinea, a country rich with oil and gas.

A country that enshrines in its constitution Christian values and recently passed a bill to make herself a Christian nation.

In the Hohola One refugee camp, West Papuan families have dwelled in their makeshift homes for over 30 years.

Here we met Sonny Karubaba, born and raised in the camp and now in his late thirties.

Sonny is one of the fortunate ones to find a job. He is also the camp coordinator and spokesperson.

“This is who we are and how we live,” Sonny told me. “The families you see have been crouching under these makeshift dwellings for as long as I can remember.

“We come from different provinces in West Papua, but today we live as a family. We share pretty much every resource. We must share to live, you know.”

We were sitting in a circle. Children aged three to six anticipating what we going to share with bright smiles.

They showed the joy of seeing visitors even as their parents and elders explained the gloomy side of this reality.

Personally I could not see the gloomy picture behind the angelic smiles of those innocent children. Even in the hell of life, God reminds us of the beautiful gift of children.

I reached out my hand as tears rolled down my eyes. Their gentle hands were rich in kindness, flavoured with gratitude and of course more smiles.

I could not speak.

I listened as Sonny continued his recount the brutal conditions of being a West Papuan refugee in Port Moresby and elsewhere in Papua New Guinea.

From the outer circle of our sitting arrangement, the elders nodded their heads in agreement as they listened.

I could sense the weariness in these old men who had fought this fight since youth.

Hohola 1 West Papua Camp, Rainbow and Waigani are three major camps amongst others scattered around Port Moresby.

“Most of these girls and boys don’t go to school,” Sonny continued.

“The promise for better education, jobs and living to liberate us from our current condition is gloomy.

“We are relying on the roadside markets for our sustenance but 99% of us are not working.”

As if the future wasn’t gloomy enough for these children, this piece of land which has at least provided some hope of home has been under dispute since 2016.

“We only hope things fall in our favour, otherwise we might be evicted from this place we regard as home for now. We don’t know where we will go next.”

An elderly man spoke. Donatius Karuri’s voice was calm yet longing for some answers that would bring hope. 

“We have been here for the last 30 years at least.

“Many so-called human rights groups and organisations have come, listened to our stories and taken photos, and here we are doing the same thing.

“Is there anything you can offer us?”

My colleague from Caritas had to explain that our visit was to listen and see their reality and be able to share their stories of struggle, pain and resilience.

A plight that governments and human rights organisations remain tight lipped about.

“The only group that visited us from time to time is the Catholic Bishops Conference and Caritas,” Donatius said.

“Caritas used to support us with school fees for our children and opportunities for our women to participate in sewing training.

“Otherwise we do have skills. We only need the recognition as citizens to participate meaningfully.”

All they are asking now is a place to call home, a recognition by the PNG government for citizenship at least.

The cry for free West Papua is not on the agenda now. This is a different generation.

They just long for a place to rebuild their shattered dreams.

The PNG Immigration Citizenship Authority (PNGICA) website statement on refugees acknowledges that lack of formal status hampers these people from achieving their full potential.

At Rainbow, at least 55 families live in shelters made from a patchwork of materials they salvage from the streets.

Here’s something you can do for people whether they are from Rainbow, Waigani or Hohola.

If you see these men and women selling fried fish or shrimp at the roadside, strike up a chat with them and buy something if you can.

If you do this, the chances are that you could be supporting a West Papuan family put meals on their plate.

In amazing Port Moresby, with its fine buildings, parks and monuments, these people walk amongst us with a smile that hides the pain and the longing to enjoy their own home like we do.

Whenever I walk into a West Papuan refugee camp, I see living conditions that look like people in a war zone.

“The politics of the day decide what happens to us next,” Sonny puts it at the Hohola settlement.

If these people are given PNG citizenship, they will be able to study, work, travel overseas, vote and avail themselves of health, education and financial services.

The wait for this to eventuate seems like an eternity.

One of the PNG government’s blunders was the massive K10,000 citizenship application fee which none of them could afford.

This fee was waived only when the wave of asylum seekers brought to Manus were allowed free citizenship applications.

The change in refugee policy didn’t occur in favour of the West Papuans.

Their reality remained unimaginable.

In the Hohola settlement a fenced piece of land for one family dwelling caters for about 23 families including at least 46 children below the age of 18.

As the elders escorted us through their camp, I couldn’t imagine what it looked like when it was dark and blacked out.

You couldn’t find your way out without stepping on families sleeping on the ground, inside car wrecks or in any space they can find.

This is a community of 23 families living on one small block of land, sharing electricity costs, a shower, a toilet and a hope for a place to call home.


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Arthur Williams

I believe that these unlucky people were hoping to be treated better by PNG's Melanesian government.

Sadly economics overrules morality today, so PNG is forced to kowtow to Jakarta if it hopes to access Indonesia's vast population with exports of kaukau and other veggies and fruits.

I also think that the UNHCR long ago classified these people as not being refugees, so it doesn't have to support them, leaving PNG to foot the bill.

Lindsay F Bond

Thank you, Reilly. What you tell is truly unfortunate.

Much as some PNG folk have words of askance against Australia and some other nations over various issues, it is in this case that the deeper interior of policy and governance in PNG is revealed by this (shall we say) sore issue and sorry business that it lingers so long.

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