Torres Strait asylum bid by West Papuan activists a test for Abbott government

West Papua protesters Jacob Rumbiak, Kevin Buzzacott and Judulu aboard one of the Freedom Flotilla boats in Cairns.
(Picture: Brian Cassey Source: The Australian)

Joel Magarey and Lauren Wilson The Australian 26 September 2013

Up to seven West Papuan independence activists are believed to have fled across the Torres Strait to northern Queensland in search of asylum after supporting Australian "Freedom Flotilla" members who sailed close to Indonesian waters earlier this month.

West Papuan and Australian sources have told The Australian the group eluded Indonesian police and military searchers by travelling to Papua New Guinea by speedboat on Sunday, before crossing the Torres Strait on Monday night to Australia's Boigu Island, just 4km south of the PNG mainland.

Authorities are understood to be searching the Torres Strait for the vessel used by the asylum-seekers, who are now in the custody of the Department of Immigration and who face transfer to Manus island or Nauru for processing.

While it was believed there were six activists in the group, it's understood seven people made the crossing of the Torres Strait - the first since Tony Abbott launched his hardline border protection policy, Operation Sovereign Borders, last week.

During the election, the Prime Minister warned of the need for a `Torres Strait Solution' to prevent the region becoming a new route for asylum-seekers. More patrol resources were pledged but no announcements have been made.

It is believed the group will seek refugee status in Australia, claiming they face persecution in West Papua for peaceful political expression after participating in or acting in support of the flotilla venture.

The flight of the West Papuans has the potential to cause a serious row with Jakarta, just when the Abbott government is already under fire from Indonesia over its controversial plan to turn back asylum-seeker boats.

The decision of the Howard government to provide protection to a group of 43 West Papuan refugees in 2006 caused what was seen as the biggest crisis in bilateral relations since Australia's intervention in favour of East Timorese independence in 1998-99.

One West Papuan believed to be in the group, Yacob Mandabayan, contacted The Australian from West Papua last Wednesday, saying he and five others had gone into hiding and were “not safe”, after threats were made against them by Indonesian military and police.

Mr Mandabayan had days earlier participated in a covert ceremony involving the handover of ceremonial gifts to West Papuan leaders by the members of the Freedom Flotilla protest mission.

The Freedom Flotilla included two groups of Australians travelling towards West Papua, one by yacht and one across land through Papua New Guinea, to support the West Papuan independence struggle.

Reports subsequently emerged from Merauke in West Papua - the planned destination for the Freedom Flotilla's flagship yacht - of police and military “sweeping” operations in search of local activists who had supported the protest.

West Papuan online news site featured a photograph of police searching passengers arriving in Merauke by plane and quoting police officials confirming that search and other coastal search operations were related to the flotilla.

Mr Mandabayan told The Australian: “The military threaten me with ongoing surveillance around the house at night times and during the day.

“They trying to identify me and other cousins whether we involve directly with flotilla or not.

“They say that the border is closed and they will do sweeping and find out about who involved with the cultural ceremony.

“Now we become refugees in our own country.”

Four West Papuans have already been arrested and charged with “treason” after organising a prayer gathering in support of the flotilla.

The treason charge carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. Amnesty International says the four were “arrested and charged solely for their peaceful political activism, which remains highly restricted in Papua”.

Australian-based West Papuans say another five activists have also been arrested for organising celebratory functions as the ceremonial gifts brought by flotilla members were taken on a tour of the disputed territory.

News of the asylum seekers' flight also follows a report by Guardian Australia of the shooting of civilians by Indonesian paramilitary police on Monday, in disputed circumstances.

West Papua was claimed by Indonesia after a 1969 referendum widely regarded as a sham. Human rights monitors say thousands of West Papuans have been killed by the Indonesian military in the decades since.

Additional reporting: Sarah Elks