Invisible victims of the Papua conflict: the Nduga Regency refugees

Since the end of 2018 approximately 400 refugees have died in Nduga Refugee Camps.  Indonesian authorities have not taken a leading role in dealing with this problem. How can the Indonesian authorities improve this situation?

In the last couple of months, the media has reported on Indonesian security forces shooting two men in Mimika Regency, Papua. While the current discussion on Papua is re-emerging in public, few talk about the conflict’s toll on internally displaced people. After the Nduga massacre in 2018—when 25 workers from state-owned Indonesian construction firm were abducted and the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNBP) killed 30 people—the Indonesian executive declared a state of emergency in the Nduga regency. The emergency status gave justification for the Indonesian Military Forces (TNI) to launch the Nemangkawi Military Operation which increased the intensity of armed conflict in the region, which in turn created an influx of Internally Displaced Person (IDP)s. Today, approximately 5000 people live in the refugee camp, among 700 of whom are children.

IDPs in Nduga are currently living in poor conditions. A volunteer from Baku Bantu Foundation stated that the IDPs’ meals in the camp consist only of yams, without additional side dishes to provide further nutrients. As the result, many of the IDPs experience malnutrition—a condition that is especially dangerous to vulnerable groups such as pregnant women, small children, and people with chronic medical conditions. Additionally, the IDPs also suffered from inadequate sanitation, which causes health problems such as diarrhea and skin disease. The combination of malnutrition, poor sanitation, and lack of medical attention also compromise IDPs’ overall immune systems, which leads to vulnerability to tropical diseases such as malaria and dengue fever. Since the refugee camps were first established in 2018, approximately 400 refugees have died in various camps in Nduga.

Since the beginning, the Indonesian government has been absent from Nduga, and most refugee camps in the regency are established by NGOs, churches, and indigenous Papuan youth organisations—institutions with limited resources. While the conditions in the refugee camp worsen each day, there are calls for the Indonesian authorities to declare a humanitarian emergency. However, in mid-2019, the Indonesian military reportedly labelled figures in reports from Solidarity for Nduga and Amnesty International as a “hoax.” They denied that the number is that high, even though they have not verified the conditions directly themselves.

The authorities, through the Ministry of Social Affairs, have since given aid to Nduga refugee camps to the value of Rp. 745 million (around USD 53,000), which was distributed in the form of foods, household tools, and school supplies. The authority also attempted to start a counseling program in emergency schools, conducted by the teachers. However, the government’s aid is still far from sufficient, since the camps need more than ad hoc aid to create a stable and healthy environment.

The late response from the Indonesian government, combined with indigenous Papuans’ hostility towards the government’s perennial militaristic approach in Papua, has made any further approach towards the refugees by the Indonesian government difficult. However, this does not mean that the government should not focus on dealing with the Nduga refugee crises—on the contrary, this issue should be a priority in handling the Papua conflict. Although the Nduga Refugee crisis has received little media attention in the past two years, it does not erase the possibility that this issue can become a sticking point in the Papua conflict in the future.

While the militaristic approach is an important element of counterinsurgency tactics, the Indonesian government should not regard it as the sole element in curbing the separatist movement. The indigenous Papuan community is considered a “neutral population” in the Papuan conflict, as their support can help decide the victory or defeat of the belligerents. Support for Indonesia from the indigenous Papuan community would weaken the insurgents’ support base, depriving them of their intelligence networks, logistics, and hiding places among the neutral population. In terms of international legitimacy, support from the indigenous Papuan population will also strengthen Indonesia’s position and securing its victory in case of a referendum. On the contrary, lack of sympathy for the government will strengthen the insurgents’ bargaining position in the international world.

Research by Paul et. al at RAND shows that from 59 case studies, 44 states still use the militaristic approach as their main counterinsurgency strategy. However, repressive methods only resulted in a success rate of 32%. On the other hand, states who use mixed strategies have a higher chance of success, rated at 73%. Indonesia could learn from the successful British counterinsurgency in Malaya during the 1950s, where the British government conducted several strategies aside from military operations, such as conducting political reform and improving governance. It is critical for the Indonesian authority to take a leading role in improving the condition of the refugee camps.

Mengapa media gagal meliput Papua?

Nasihat dari seorang wartawan Indonesia bagi kawan-kawannya yang meliput isu-isu Papua.

It is critical for the Indonesian authorities to take a leading role in improving conditions in the refugee camps.

Even though IDPs currently hold grievances against the Indonesian authorities, the Indonesian government could regain their trust by enhancing its cooperation with institutions and key persons that are close to the local community and already involved in assisting IDPs. Those institutions include Nduga’s customary leaders, churches, and local civil society organizations. By conducting dialogue, information sharing, and joint site visits with those institutions the Indonesian government could gain better insight into the factual conditions, and produce a more effective policy to improve the living conditions of Nduga IDPs.

In the end, over and above its strategic importance, the Nduga refugee crisis should be seen as a humanitarian problem that is in dire need of attention from the Indonesian authorities. Without further help from the government, the situation in Nduga refugee camp could worsen at any time, which would have long-term impacts that could hamper post-conflict revitalisation in the Nduga regency. Considering all of these factors, the Indonesian government must be present and take a leading role in mitigating the Nduga refugee crisis.

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