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Life in a West Papua Refugee Camp in Port Moresby

Updated: Feb 14, 2023

By Reilly Kanamon (originally published in the Post Courier on October 28, 2022). All we long for now is a piece of land we can own, a piece of land that is all we need to rebuild ourselves, that is home to us, was the resounding plea from West Papuan refugees in one of the suburbs in Port Moresby.


Second to that was the plea for recognition and identity as persons with dignity and freedom of livelihood. “We can’t even get a National Identity card (NID) with our refugee status.


To open bank accounts, the banks require NID, to travel overseas we need passports. Most of us are without any identity, and we are still restricted in accessing public services such as health and education which require formal identity,” said refugee Sonny Karubaba. It was unimaginable, the cruelest human treatment I could imagine. Mothers and children walked out of makeshift shelters with smiles, a hope for a better tomorrow, though nothing seems promising. This was Hohola one urban in Port Moresby, the capital city of PNG, a country rich with oil and gas, a country that had enshrined in its Constitution Christian values and recently passed a bill to make her a Christian nation. Here we find Hohola one West Papuan refugee camp, a place where families, including children, have dwelled in encroached makeshifts for more than 30 years. There, we met Sonny Karubaba who was born, raised, and is now in his late 30-40s, among a few remaining elders in the camp.


Sonny was one of the fortunate ones to find a job. He is also their spokesperson and camp coordinator.


“This is who we are and how we live. These families you see all crouching under this makeshift for as long as I can remember. We come from different provinces in West Papua, but today we live as a family. We share pretty much every resource, we must share to live, you know,” Sonny says. From a circular position where we were sitting, children of about ages three to six were sitting and anticipating what we going to share with bright smiles. They showed the joy of seeing visitors, listening as their parents and elders tell the glooming side of reality, perhaps a story of change this time. I reached out my hand as tears rolled down my eyes to shake a gentle hand, rich in kindness, flavoured with gratitude, and of course more smiles. I listened as Sonny continued his recount of the brutal conditions of being a West Papuan refugee in Port Moresby and elsewhere in Papua New Guinea. Hohola one West Papua Camp is just one of three major camps, including one in Rainbow, Waigani, and other scattered individuals in the amazing Port Moresby with its modern feature to show off to the world.


“Most of these girls and boys don’t go to school and the promise for better education, jobs, and better living to liberate us from our current condition is gloomy. We are relying on the roadside market you can see outside. With almost 99 per cent of us not working, we somehow must provide for our survival,” Sonny continued. As if the future wasn’t gloomy enough for these children, the piece of land which has at least provided the least hope of what home could feel like is under dispute since 2016. “We could only hope things fall in our favour, otherwise, we might be evicted from this place we at least regard as a home for now. We do not know where we will go next,” Sonny expressed concern. Among the elders, an elderly man spoke. His voice was very calm, yet begging and longing for some answers that would bring hope and social security. “We have been here for the last 30 years, at least. Many so-called human rights groups and organisations have come, listened to our stories, and taken photos of our living conditions, and here we are doing the same thing. Is there anything you can offer us?” Donatius Karuri politely asked.


My colleague from Caritas had to explain that our visit was to listen and see their reality and be able to share their stories of struggle, pain, and resilience to the world, a voice, and concern that governments and human rights organisations remain tight lip about. “We have been here, and the only group that visited us more from time to time is the Catholic Bishops Conference of Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands (CBC PNGSI) and Caritas”. Caritas used to support us with basic school fees for our children in school, including skill training opportunities for our women to participate in sewing training. Otherwise, we have skills. We only need the recognition as citizens to participate meaningfully,” was the reply. The PNG Immigration Citizenship Authority (PNGICA) website statement on refugees acknowledged that the lack of formal status has hampered most of them from achieving their full potential.



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