Refugees in Papua New Guinea: Government Response and Assistance, 1984-1988


Preston, Rosemary. 1992. “Refugees in Papua New Guinea: Government Response and Assistance, 1984-1988.” International Migration Review 26 (3): 843–76.

Author: Rosemary Preston


The refugee situation after the 1984 movement from Indonesia is examined in terms of policy implications and assistance as well as the welfare and education of refugees. Information was collected from government sources and documents and from households in camps and communities over a 3-month period and was published in a government report in February, 1988. This article provides a review of the border issues, resistance and exodus, reactions within Papua New Guinea, 1984-85 border crossings, social and demographic refugee profiles, government response, UN involvement, border refugee camp conditions, repatriation and relocation, reasons for the exodus, and relocation to and conditions in East Awin and the implications. This exodus from West Papua New Guinea (a region now called Irian Jaya) after Indonesia's take over in 1962 represents a unique situation, which also has lessons for other asylum seekers looking for refuge status in friendly neighboring countries. International agreements, such as the Geneva Convention and Protocol, can disrupt social networks and households when the relocation they permit is implemented. Full economic and social participation is hampered by a low quality provision of education and social services. The gain is in removing "destabilizing threats to the host state and society," at the expense of the economic and residential security of the migrants. Humanitarianism hides inequalities; internationalism, in this case, confirmed Indonesian sovereignty and large scale economic exploitation. An estimated 300,000 Melanesians have died since the take over, which amounts to 30% of the total population in 1970. Persecution was the reason for migration to Papua New Guinea; migration numbers are not accurate and range from the official 2000-3000 to 12,000 in 1984. Reactions to the migration have been mixed, and fear of the military might of Indonesia is real. The government was not prepared to cope with the scale of migration and had no plans for food relief, shelter, or medical assistance; the consequence for the refugees was death by starvation. Refugee camps were located along the border; the populations varied by camp. Some were 56% male or female, and 43% of the entire population were <15 years of age. 75% were dependent on subsistence crop production before leaving. Development assistance was dependent on refugee movement away from border areas, in this case to East Awin.

Topics: Displacement & Migration, Refugees, Refugee/IDP Camps, Humanitarian Assistance, International Organizations Regions: Asia, Southeast Asia, Oceania Countries: Indonesia, Papua New Guinea

Year: 1992

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