Human rights

Refugees the world forgot: West Papuans overcoming disadvantage

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Children of West Papua, involved in the Rainbow Project, proudly exhibiting their favourite books (image supplied).

Dedicated teachers are volunteering to educate and help West Papuan refugee children escaping violence, writes Sarah Jacob.

IT'S 8 AM on a Saturday morning in early March. A group of young children are busy arranging tables and chairs inside a makeshift building. They range in age from toddlers to late primary schoolers. Their classroom doubles as their community’s only church. The building is a simple structure, constructed largely from pieces of corrugated iron and bamboo poles.

Once they have set up the classroom, they wait for their teachers – Mary Fairio and her friends – to arrive.

This is the Rainbow Project, a Saturday school run by volunteers for the children of Rainbow Camp, a refugee settlement in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. When most people think of refugees in the context of Papua New Guinea, they think of asylum seekers held here by the Australian Government as part of its offshore detention regime.

But the inhabitants of this camp are West Papuan families who fled across the border from the western half of the island of New Guinea, most of them more than a decade ago. They migrated to escape violence and persecution by militias and the Indonesian military, which has been ongoing since Indonesia annexed the region in 1962. 

Volunteers are leading the charge to assist vulnerable West Papuan refugees (image supplied).

"They are so beautiful, they are there every Saturday on the dot,” Fairio says of her students. Since classes began in January 2019, around 35 students have attended each week.

Before lessons start, the group gathers together to pray. Fairio asks the class for a volunteer to lead the prayer. Hands shoot up across the room. Children who, in the beginning, were too shy to nominate, are now raising their hands. After prayers are completed, the class splits into smaller groups on the basis of age and education level.

The Rainbow Project recently celebrated its first anniversary. It’s located in Rainbow Estate, a middle-income housing estate where most residents own their houses. The refugee camp was established here 12 years ago as a temporary settlement. Before the camp was set up, the group of around 200 West Papuans simply lived in the drainage canal, as there was no room for them anywhere else.

Currently, there are about 35 households here, often consisting of three generations living under the same roof. One hundred and seven of the residents are children aged under 18. Some of the adults are employed as drivers, security guards or cleaners, but most subsist on the small amount of money they make selling fish on skewers, buns and doughnuts in the local market.

It was Fairio, a Papua New Guinean-born academic of West Papuan heritage, who came up with the idea of a Saturday school, after a student from the University of Canberra visited Rainbow Camp and donated boxes of books and stationery to the local children. Fairio quickly realised that the gift would only have a real impact in the community if local adults volunteered their time to help the children read the books.

Fairio says:

"We are working on building their confidence. 


In Papua New Guinea, schooling is very passive — it just goes one way. [West Papuan students] find it very difficult to engage and communicate ... to ask questions and get the help they need.”

The lessons are paying off. The teachers have received positive feedback from their students’ parents, some of whom have reported that their child’s command of English has improved and they are now speaking it at home. The Saturday school has made a big difference in the lives of children who are unable to access government-provided education. Many families living in Rainbow Camp cannot afford to pay for school fees or face other barriers, such as disability or illness.

Rainbow Camp is one of three refugee settlements in Port Moresby and there are also two large encampments located close to the Papua New Guinean border.

The World Refugee Survey in 2008 estimated the number of West Papuan refugees in Papua New Guinea at around 10,000 and no further data has been collected since this time. In August and September 2019, an uptick in violence in West Papua resulted in the displacement of up to 45,000 people from Nduga Regency, some of whom are thought to have crossed into Papua New Guinea.

The Papua New Guinean government has supported some West Papuans to obtain citizenship, which opens up greater access to government services. Otherwise, the community receives no government support to meet their daily needs. They rely primarily on assistance from church groups and individuals to create opportunities for their people.

Fairio says that conditions in Rainbow Camp are crowded and unsanitary:

“The entire community has only one toilet that is shared. That pit toilet has been there for the past 12 years. I am trying to organise a portable toilet for the children because it is so unhygienic.”

The residents have access to only one water supply. Community members must pay every time they use it — the price is 15 kina (around $6.50 AUD) for two hours of usage. There is also only one source of electricity, shared amongst all 35 households.

The financial circumstances of many in Rainbow Camp often mean that they do not have easy access to even basic services such as transport. In an emergency medical situation, having money for a bus fare can mean the difference between life and death for the most vulnerable people in this community.

This is also true for ethnic Papua New Guineans, around 40 per cent of whom live in poverty.

Gary Juffa, the Governor of Oro Province, is one of several politicians campaigning within government to provide more assistance to the West Papuan refugee community.

Gary Juffa has been a big supporter of the West Papuan people (image supplied).

Juffa reiterated that:

First and foremost, we should give every West Papuan refugee citizenship, that’s the first thing we should do. Once that’s done, let’s find a way to accommodate them so that they can live with dignity.


I’m optimistic. At this stage, there’s very little that’s been done, but there’s a lot of conversation and a lot of interest.

Fairio’s tale of a young student named Julie illustrates the difficulties faced by families living in the camp. The nine-year-old was not able to attend regular school because of a physical disability. Fairio describes her as an avid student who progressed quickly in class activities, until her sudden death from tuberculosis in early 2020.

Her parents were unable to get her to the hospital in time for her to receive adequate treatment:

“From the first day of the [Saturday] school until a week before she died and despite the fact that she’d never been to regular school, she was always the first to raise her hand.”  

Fairio said, plaintively:

“We provided that opportunity. I feel blessed that she was able to come to the school."

The Rainbow Project is on hiatus, brought to a halt by the lockdown imposed in order to arrest the spread of COVID-19. At time of writing, only eight cases of the virus have been confirmed in Papua New Guinea, but the community is fearful of what will happen if the outbreak is not contained.

“Our situation is very bad,” says the Chairman of Rainbow Camp, Olaf Wayangkau. “We cannot go out. We depended on the market in front of Rainbow. Now the market has been shut down. We need help.”

Sarah Jacob is a freelance writer and editor, covering human rights and environmental issues. You can follow her on Twitter: @Jacob_Writes

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