Warnings to Papuan boat people

By Mark Forbes, Lindsay Murdoch and Michelle Grattan
April 6, 2006

AUSTRALIA and Indonesia have signalled tougher measures to stop a predicted flood of West Papuan asylum seekers crossing Torres Strait.

The moves came as the latest group of Papuans trying to flee to Australia were reported to have been diverted to a coastal town in Papua New Guinea.

While authorities yesterday tried to locate the group, it was revealed that Indonesia had dispatched five warships to waters off West Papua to intercept any other asylum seekers.

At the same time, Australia flagged increased surveillance of its northern borders and sent a firm message to Papuans.

Defence Minister Brendan Nelson said future arrivals from West Papua would be treated like any other illegal entrants. "It doesn't matter which country they come from," he said.

And Prime Minister John Howard, facing a serious rift with Indonesia sparked by Australia's granting of protection visas to 42 Papuan asylum seekers, had his own message for other Papuans. "I regard them as citizens of the Republic of Indonesia," he said. "That's my message to them."

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, on a visit to West Papua, warned foreigners not to support Papuan separatists. The province was a "domestic issue" and no outsiders should meddle in it, he said.

The developments came as a family of six Papuans who fled for Australia last week, including labour activist Paulus Samkakai, were reportedly diverted to PNG.

A fisherman who took the family into Australian waters told The Age he ran low on fuel and became disoriented while searching for Bamboo Island (also known as Deliverance Island) and took the group to the PNG town of Bula instead.

"I couldn't find Bamboo Island, besides our fuel was not enough so I took him to Bula," the fisherman said.

It is believed Mr Samkakai is still intending to seek asylum in Australia, claiming persecution due to his trade union activities.

Australian authorities have been searching for him and his family since Tuesday, after a Catholic priest in the West Papuan town of Merauke claimed the group had landed at an island in Torres Strait.

An Australian Customs spokeswoman said yesterday that constant surveillance of the area by 17 aircraft had failed to sight the family.

Meanwhile, an Indonesian navy spokesman said reports of more asylum seekers was a factor in increased naval presence in the region. Five ships are believed to be patrolling in waters off Merauke.

Any suspicious vessels would be stopped and searched, Colonel Toni Syaiful said.

David Manne, a lawyer representing the West Papuan protection visa holders, called for any new arrivals to be given the same treatment.

He said any process they undergo should not be influenced by political considerations but based on the individual merits of their claims.

Mr Howard would not speculate about any future arrivals. He said that although the granting of protection visas to the earlier group of West Papuans had caused strain in the relationship with Indonesia, it was not a "fatal strain".



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