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New permits allow Indonesian refugees to move on in Papua New Guinea

News Stories, 14 October 2005

© UNHCR/J.Siffointe
Refugees dressed in traditional clothes celebrate receiving Papua New Guinea residency permits, which allow them freedom of movement and a range of other rights.

EAST AWIN, Papua New Guinea, October 14 (UNHCR) Almost a year to the day since 184 refugees from Indonesia's Papua province (formerly known as Irian Jaya) were transferred to the remote refugee settlement area of East Awin in Papua New Guinea, they have been granted residency permits which will transform their daily lives.

The Permissive Residency Permits (PRPs) give the refugees important rights, including the right to move freely around the country, engage in business activities, and work under conditions similar to those that apply to Papua New Guinea (PNG) citizens. The permits also provide for freedom of worship and marriage, and give better access to the courts as well as to health and education services.

Welcoming the government's move to grant the permits, the UN refugee agency's Representative in PNG Johann Siffointe said it was a significant step in the process of helping the refugees integrate in their asylum country.

"Local integration is currently the most viable way refugees from the Papua Province of Indonesia can find a solution to their plight as refugees and rebuild their lives anew," Siffointe said. "By providing these refugees with residency permits, the PNG Government is clearly showing its commitment to comply with international obligations."

Several groups of pro-independence refugees have fled the troubled Indonesian province of Papua since the late 1960s. The latest group to receive residency permits is usually referred to as the 'Vanimo Group,' after their arrival in PNG's northern coastal town of Vanimo in December 2000.

Last year, with UNHCR's help, the group was moved from Vanimo to East Awin, which lies on the far side of the mountain ranges that form PNG's central spine, in a complex relocation exercise involving a plane, a boat trip up the Fly River, followed by a final bone-jarring 46-km journey on tractors.

Chris Kati, PNG's Director of Border Affairs and Special Projects, said the permit regularizes the refugees' stay in the country and gives them an opportunity to become self-sufficient.

"Importantly, the PRPs are also now issued to all adults and not just 'heads of households' recognizing the importance of equal rights for women and our commitment to gender equity," Kati said.

The residency permit, which is renewable every three years, is available to all adult refugees who reside in the 6,000-hectare East Awin settlement for a minimum of six months. After eight years, permit holders become eligible for naturalization as PNG citizens.

Last week, UNHCR's Johann Siffointe took part in day-long celebrations to mark the first anniversary of the Vanimo Group's arrival in East Awin. The UNHCR-assisted distribution of the permits took place during the celebrations.

Siffointe recalled the complex relocation exercise that took place last year, and commended the group's achievements so far in building their new community.

"Many houses are now complete and all the households have established gardens growing kau kau [sweet potato] and peanuts, which are also being sold at the markets in Kiunga and Tabubil," he said.

"The settlement administrator assures me that the gardens of the 'Vanimo group' now known as the Wamena Group after their homeland across the Indonesian border are the best to be found in East Awin," Siffointe added.

Twenty-nine-year-old refugee Ms Delly Jikwa helped prepare the anniversary celebrations. "I am happy to celebrate today. We have been here for one year and we are safe. It is good to have the PRPs: we can now move freely in PNG," she said.

For the moment, however, the Jikwa family plans to stay put in East Awin, where the eldest son attends the local elementary school and learns English.

Other members of the Wamena group are keen to take full advantage of their new-found freedoms and move further afield to seek work.

"Today is a big day. Now that I have my Permissive Residency Permit, I will be able to move to another place in PNG..... I haven't decided yet where to go but I hope to find a job working in a garden or as a chicken farmer", said Mr Constant Pabuni, one of the group's leaders who says he sought refuge in PNG in 2000 after he was targeted by authorities in his homeland because of his political activities.

About 1,000 Permissive Residency Permits have been issued since their introduction in 1999. It is estimated about 30 percent of PRP holders have exercised their right to move away from the refugee resettlement area of East Awin and settle elsewhere in the country.

By Arianne Rummery

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