The reception of the West Papuan refugees has brought together a number of related questions. It has also demonstrated how important it is to keep these issues distinct, and to address them in the right order.
The first question concerns the West Papuan asylum seekers themselves. How should Australians treat West Papuans who flee their country and appeal for asylum on the grounds that they have been persecuted?
The second question concerns conditions in West Papua. Any judgment that someone is a refugee implies a judgment that they have faced at least local persecution in their homeland. Does that reflect a wider oppression?
The third question concerns the relationship between Indonesia and West Papua, of which it is now a province. Should that status be considered as unalterable, or ought the possibility of independence be considered?
These are questions which Australian citizens should consider. They are also questions to which the Australian Government ought respond in a principled way.
The proper, and indeed only moral, order of asking these questions must begin with the humanity of the people affected. The people who most directly concern Australia are the West Papuans who seek asylum. The fact of a shared humanity demands that Australia offer refuge to West Papuans who make a justified claim on its protection. Furthermore, the dignity of those who apply for asylum must be respected. We do this by adjudicating promptly and fairly the truth of their claims.
This is how Australia did respond to the West Papuans who recently landed in Australia. It was a credit to the reformed Immigration Department.
Only after attending to the needs of persons, should we look at wider issues. The enquiry, too, should focus on what is happening to human beings. About the situation of West Papua as a whole, it is difficult to gather conclusive evidence. . But what is known about the management and policies of the Freeport mine, the practises of the Indonesian army in other times and places, and the fears of local inhabitants, suggest serious grounds for concern. Respect for the West Papuan people requires that the Government express this concern.
The third question concerns the political status of West Papua. Both the issue of independence itself and discussion of it raise complex questions. But when they are addressed, discussion should also begin by considering the dignity of the persons affected. In this case the people include those from West Papua and from other parts of Indonesia. People’s dignity embraces their relationships, their groups and a measure of autonomy in controlling the direction of their individual and communal lives. This consideration, of course, touches both local groups and the larger entities to which they belong. Decisions about national autonomy need to be made for the good of all and of each person. In judging what is good, we need also to consider the likely consequences of dissolving an existing union.
These questions are inherently difficult, but they are not resolved by insisting that we preserve the status quo. In the case of West Papua, the question of autonomy is made inescapable by its modern history. Rule passed from the Netherlands to Indonesia without the free consent of the people. Worse, the plebiscite approved by the United Nations was a cynical farce that discredited the takeover. It has been followed by extensive transmigration, and exploitation of West Papuan resources.
Difficult questions imply the need for argument. That is why it is important to encourage a reasoned public conversation that begins with and returns to the dignity of the human beings involved.
Judged by these standards, the Australian response has been mixed and muddled. The treatment of the first West Papuan asylum seekers was exemplary in its focus and execution. But subsequent decisions to hold one of the asylum seekers on Christmas Island, to assist the Indonesian navy in patrolling the West Papuan coast, and to apply the Pacific solution for all on-shore applicants for asylum, however, made the dignity of asylum seekers subservient to a compliant relationship with Indonesia. As it had done in devising the Pacific Solution, the Government chose expediency over morality.
The Government has been silent about conditions in West Papua. But its cooperation in navy patrols that deter asylum seekers, could be morally justified only if it were convinced that West Papuans do not face persecution. There is little evidence to support that conviction.
The Government has asserted unequivocally that West Papua is Indonesian territory. It has coupled this statement with its desire for friendship with Indonesia. This position may be justified, but it is weakened by its failure to address, or even consider relevant to discussion, the dignity of the people of West Papua. It separates moral from strategic issues. The consequences of doing so are patent in the history of Australian engagement with East Timor.
It appears that the Government has privileged pragmatic interests over moral considerations. This will be expedient in the short term, contribute to much human suffering in the intermediate term, and come back to haunt Australia in the longer term.
Andrew Hamilton has written on refugee issues since the 1980s.
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23 May 2006
I do wonder if the Australian government ever does remember that those who are coming in by boat are in fact human beings...and what of our committments, under UN treaties and charters, such as the founding UN declaration of Human Rights, to accept refugees who are "legitimate" (and aren't most?
29 May 2006
It is disgraceful that our Aust government would continue to use the Pacific solution to deny refugees access to Australian justice system. That they are refugees escaping from life threatening conditions should move our government to accept its responsibilities under the UNHCR charter which I believe is still applicable, irrespective of our seeming weak kneed approach to keep Indonesia happy.