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First give West Papuans a human welcome

  • 18 May 2006
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