April 5, 2006

More Papuan boat people reported in Australia

By Diyan Jari and Michelle Nichols

JAKARTA/CANBERRA (Reuters) - A family from Indonesia's
troubled Papua province has reached Australia to seek safety
and voice its grievances, a Papua-based Catholic priest said on
Wednesday as Canberra investigates the truth of the report.

If the family's arrival is confirmed, it will be the first
boatload of Papuan refugees known to have landed in Australia
since Canberra gave three-year protection visas last month to a
group of 42, straining ties between the two neighbors.

That group had reached Australia's northern coast in late
January after sailing for five days in an outrigger.

Indonesia sees accepting such people for asylum as giving
credence to their claims of ill-treatment, which Indonesia
denies, and as support for Papuan independence.

Father Yus Mawengkang told Reuters two boats had recently
sailed for Australia from Merauke, a town on Papua province's
southern coast, and one had arrived.

"The first family, a couple with four children, departed on
March 28... and arrived at Deliverance Island on March 29. They
have been vocal in criticizing the government's labor policies
and fighting for the rights of the Papuan people," he said by
phone from Merauke, 3,700 km (2,300 miles) east of Jakarta.

"They did not feel safe living in their homeland. I don't
know whether they want to seek asylum but at least they want to
speak out about the problems they face," Mawengkang said.

Deliverance Island is a tiny outpost in Australia's Torres
Strait near its northern maritime border with Indonesia.

But a spokeswoman for Australia's Immigration Department
said all the islands in the Torres Strait had been excised from
the country's migration zone, meaning that if the family had
landed there they would not be able to apply for asylum.

An officer at the Indonesian naval base in Merauke said he
had not heard of any of the boatpeople reports.


A spokesman for Australian Immigration Minister Amanda
Vanstone confirmed there were reports another group of Papuans
had reached Australia, but said it was an operational matter
and no further comment would be made.

Australian Customs was making inquiries, said a spokesman
for Justice and Customs Minister Chris Ellison.

Queensland state police had gone door-to-door at homes in
Bamaga, a town on the tip of Australia's Cape York, after
receiving a report the asylum seekers might have made it there,
the Justice and Customs spokesman said.

Papuan independence activists have campaigned for more than
30 years to split from Indonesia, while a low-level rebellion
has also simmered. Some of the most prominent support for the
separatists is from organizations in Australia.

Human rights groups accuse Indonesia of widespread abuses
there, and the Papuans who sought asylum said they feared
becoming victims of genocide. Jakarta denies such charges.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, himself in Merauke on
Wednesday, said no gross human rights violation has occurred in
Papua during his presidency.

"In the past one-and-a-half years, I see there is no case
similar to those in the past and which could be categorized as
intending to violate human rights. The Indonesian government
has tried its best to use persuasive and careful methods ... in
Papua," he said in a speech to Merauke residents..

Yudhoyono said on Monday bilateral ties with Australia need
to be reviewed. He questioned Australia's support for
Indonesian sovereignty, and said doubt had been cast on a deal
to cooperate on illegal migration.

But Australian Prime Minister John Howard reiterated on
Wednesday that Australia viewed Papua as part of Indonesia.

"My message to the people of West Papua is simply this, I
regard them as citizens of the Republic of Indonesia, that's my
message to them," Howard told reporters.

Yudhoyono was in Merauke to launch the region's grand
harvest, a trip that has drawn flak from ethnic Papuan groups
as it highlights migrants from elsewhere in Indonesia, active
as rice farmers in the area, rather than indigenous Papuans.