By Diyan Jari and Michelle Nichols
Wed Apr 5, 4:11 AM ET
JAKARTA/CANBERRA (Reuters) - A family from Indonesia’s troubled Papua province has reached Australia to seek safety and voice its grievances, a Papua-based Catholic priest said on Wednesday as Canberra investigates the truth of the report.
If the family’s arrival is confirmed, it will be the first boatload of Papuan refugees known to have landed in Australia since Canberra gave three-year protection visas last month to a group of 42, straining ties between the two neighbors.
That group had reached Australia’s northern coast in late January after sailing for five days in an outrigger.
Indonesia sees accepting such people for asylum as giving credence to their claims of ill-treatment, which Indonesia denies, and as support for Papuan independence.
Father Yus Mawengkang told Reuters two boats had recently sailed for Australia from Merauke, a town on Papua province’s southern coast, and one had arrived.
"The first family, a couple with four children, departed on March 28... and arrived at Deliverance Island on March 29. They have been vocal in criticizing the government’s labor policies and fighting for the rights of the Papuan people," he said by phone from Merauke, 3,700 km (2,300 miles) east of Jakarta.
"They did not feel safe living in their homeland. I don’t know whether they want to seek asylum but at least they want to speak out about the problems they face," Mawengkang said.
Deliverance Island is a tiny outpost in Australia’s Torres Strait near its northern maritime border with Indonesia.
But a spokeswoman for Australia’s Immigration Department said all the islands in the Torres Strait had been excised from the country’s migration zone, meaning that if the family had landed there they would not be able to apply for asylum.
An officer at the Indonesian naval base in Merauke said he had not heard of any of the boatpeople reports.
A spokesman for Australian Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone confirmed there were reports another group of Papuans had reached Australia, but said it was an operational matter and no further comment would be made.
Australian Customs was making inquiries, said a spokesman for Justice and Customs Minister Chris Ellison.
Queensland state police had gone door-to-door at homes in Bamaga, a town on the tip of Australia’s Cape York, after receiving a report the asylum seekers might have made it there, the Justice and Customs spokesman said.
Papuan independence activists have campaigned for more than 30 years to split from Indonesia, while a low-level rebellion has also simmered. Some of the most prominent support for the separatists is from organizations in Australia.
Human rights groups accuse Indonesia of widespread abuses there, and the Papuans who sought asylum said they feared becoming victims of genocide. Jakarta denies such charges.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, himself in Merauke on Wednesday, said no gross human rights violation has occurred in Papua during his presidency.
"In the past one-and-a-half years, I see there is no case similar to those in the past and which could be categorized as intending to violate human rights. The Indonesian government has tried its best to use persuasive and careful methods ... in Papua," he said in a speech to Merauke residents..
Yudhoyono said on Monday bilateral ties with Australia need to be reviewed. He questioned Australia’s support for Indonesian sovereignty, and said doubt had been cast on a deal to cooperate on illegal migration.
But Australian Prime Minister John Howard reiterated on Wednesday that Australia viewed Papua as part of Indonesia.
"My message to the people of West Papua is simply this, I regard them as citizens of the Republic of Indonesia, that’s my message to them," Howard told reporters.
Yudhoyono was in Merauke to launch the region’s grand harvest, a trip that has drawn flak from ethnic Papuan groups as it highlights migrants from elsewhere in Indonesia, active as rice farmers in the area, rather than indigenous Papuans