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Salasia Camp: Australia’s 50 Year Old Refugee Processing Centre in Manus

A less common known fact is that the Lombrum detention center built in 2015 is not the first Australian refugee-processing center; the first one was built 50 years ago! 

“Australia’s first refugee camp on Manu still stands, forgotten in time…. A handful of rusty, corrugated iron houses on bare concrete slab…” writes Stephen Armbruster of SBS. This Camp is the home of third generation West Papuans, who were sent there by the Australians in the 1960s. They fled Indonesian occupation of West Papua in 1962.

Among the first refugees were two West Papuans named Clemens Runawery and Willem Zonggonau. Their story is interesting. They were forced off the plane headed for New York and sent to Manus. These two men were on their way to the United Nations in 1969 to report that Indonesia got about 100 West Papuans and coerced then under gun point in a locked room to vote in favour of Indonesians control of West Papua. This event is know as Act of Free Choice which West Papuans to this day claim is not legitimate. It is not legitimate because the Dutch granted them independence in 1961, so there was no need for a referendum (Act of Free Choice) in 1962, and even those chosen were not “free” to vote. They were intimated. Had they got to the UN, they would have reported these facts.

Australia knew of these facts, but refused to acknowledge it. The 1960s were the heydays of the Cold War, where the world was practically divided between the Communists led by Russians and the Chinese, and the Democratic nations led by US. Indonesia was among the last frontiers of communist advancement towards the Pacific. They were supported by the West to resist communism. It was in the best interest of Australia (and her patron the United States) to keep Indonesia happy. Australia did not want to have to deal with repercussions from the Indonesians.

But why sent the West Papuans to Manus?

Well Australian leaders though that if they kept the West Papuans in the then Territory of Papua and New Guinea mainland, they would influence Papua New Guineans to assist their cause, and also cross the artificial boarder to fight the Indonesians. Many of the first-generation refugees were either fleeing for safety, or were active rebels from the group Operasi Papua Meradeka (OPM). OPM was a rebel group fighting against the Indonesians. 

What was PNG’s response to the first West Papuans in Salasia?

A young political activist and member of the second House of Assembly, after hearing of the news that West Papuans were placed in camps next to police stations, said that this act …

“could be compared with Second World War when Jews were placed in concentration camps.” (Quoted by Stephen Armbruster of SBS, 2017)

This young leader’s name is Michael Somare. He is now the retired former Governor of ESP and former Prime Minister Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare. 

What is Australia doing now for the West Papuan refugees in Salasia and West Papua in general?

After independence of Papua New Guinea, Australia claimed that West Papuans in Salasia are PNG’s case to deal with. They stopped supporting West Papuans in Salasia. This seems to be a re-emerging Australian strategy: send refugees to Manus, and leave it to PNG to deal with the mess.

On West Papuan case in general, Australia maintains its 1960s position that West Papua is Indonesian territory. Back then it was the communism threat. Now its Australian mining company Rio Tinto’s Freeport Mining in West Papua. Australia recognizes Indonesia’s control of West Papua partly because Rio Tinto operates in West Papua. Australia also exports mostly agricultural products to Indonesia, beef been one of the largest exports. Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world, and Australia courts this lucrative market, exporting halal beef.

Australia’s Aid to Indonesia is only second to that given to PNG (at other times exceeds that given to PNG). And Australia trains and gives military equipment, which some argue, Indonesians use on West Papuans. Despite this unethical use, Australia continues to support Indonesia Military. 

What is PNG doing about West Papuans?

This is where I let you write your own story. What are you doing about it? What am I doing about it? I hope we write a story that our children and grand children will read and be proud of our contribution in defense of humanity, and our Melanesian brothers, and for some of you, your relatives.


Published by Academia Nomad

Blogs on politics, economics and social issues in simple language.

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