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Monday, 3 November 2003
Page: 21764


Mr CHARLES (4:26 PM) —I thank the honourable member for Ballarat for raising this issue in the House of Representatives today. It is a complex issue. The relationship between West Papua and Papua New Guinea constitutes some great difficulties and has done, I understand, across that border for a very long time. The last time I visited Papua New Guinea was with the member for Franklin—he is the only one from that trip still here in the House of Representatives. We certainly learned a great deal about our relationships with our very close neighbours and we appreciated the opportunities we had. While we flew over the Fly River, we did not manage to get to the border region, nor did we see any of the refugee camps, so I cannot speak from personal experience about those conditions.

I am advised that the Australian government has been monitoring in particular the Transmitter Camp border crosser situation since their arrival in Vanimo in December 2001. I do not know if the honourable member knows this or not: the Public Accounts and Audit Committee of this parliament did learn, during our inquiry into Coastwatch, that Australia has a memorandum of understanding with Papua New Guinea in respect of people movement. We also have a more recent one with China, which has had a huge impact on numbers of boat people. Both of those agreements in effect say that, if transnationals leave their jurisdiction—say, if West Papuans or others are in Papua New Guinea and then transit to Australia—then Australia will send them straight back to Papua New Guinea, which will accept them back again.

I understand it is a difficult issue. Our high commission in Port Moresby, I am informed, works closely with the Papua New Guinean government and their counterparts in Port Moresby to try to help resolve some of these refugee issues. I understand your genuine concern about your student and how it could be that other potential students might be given a more easy path to Australia, either to secondary or tertiary school. We have accepted literally tens of thousands of Papua New Guineans into our institutions over the years. Having visited there, and having a number of friends from Papua New Guinea that I have kept in contact with since then, I am aware that those relationships have been fantastic. It has been good for Australia and for Papua New Guinea.

Papua New Guinea is going through a period of financial difficulty at the moment. I do not know how all of this is going to play out. When we were there, we also learnt about the very great population density problems, which in essence led to the problems with the rascals. My understanding of Papua New Guinean law is that a father owns the title to the land—this is not really shown on a piece of paper; it is, for example, from that rock to that hill to that tree to that place where the bird died—and, when the father dies, the land transfers to any or all of his sons. So if the plot of land was enough to produce a subsistence living for a family of six or seven, and the father dies, then there could be four young men who want to take up that plot of land. That is not sustainable, so they move to the outskirts of Lae or Moresby and that is where the trouble starts.

As I said, I thank the honourable member for Ballarat for raising this issue. The government is trying to monitor the situation, with the UNHCR and the Papua New Guinean government. The government is encouraging Papua New Guinea to review its domestic legislation to allow it to do a better job of helping those who are genuine refugees and to come to some sort of ultimate resolution of its extremely complex border problem in a part of the world that is, quite frankly, almost impenetrable. (Time expired)