Aid agencies in Indonesia's Papua region say their work is coming under increased government scrutiny due to Jakarta's concern over a secessionist movement on the island.
"So many international aid groups working in Papua have been pushed out by the government," Andreas Harsono, a researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW) who has been covering Indonesia for years, told IRIN, citing a string of NGOs and charity groups, as well as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), that have had to leave.
"They can maintain a presence if they work with the government, but if they give aid directly to Papuans or Papuan organizations, aid groups will be heavily scrutinized by the government and suspected of aiding the independence movement."
The resource-rich Papua region (2,000km east of Jakarta and comprising the provinces of Papua and West Papua) has the lowest levels of human development of Indonesia's 33 provinces, with about 34 percent of Papuans living on less than US$1 per day, according to government statistics. The region has a land area nearly twice that of the UK but a population of only 3.5 million.
"There are multiple issues facing West Papua and Papua today," said Dini Sari Djalal, head of communications at the World Bank's Jakarta office. "Among the most vital are poverty, maternal mortality and HIV/AIDS. The two provinces rank worst in these indicators in all of Indonesia."
At the same time, the region is prone to a host of natural disasters, one of the most recent being a 6.1 magnitude quake on 8 September recorded off the coast of Nabire, Papua.
"In the West Papuan cities of Manokwari and Sorong, earthquakes are recorded on a fairly regular basis as is flooding," said Phillip Charlesworth, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies head of delegation for Indonesia.
But it is Papua's decades-long simmering separatist movement that has often dominated international media attention.
Although the government granted the region Special Autonomy status in 2001, activists continue to voice their discontent, calling for greater autonomy to help improve the region's socioeconomic problems.
Native Papuans are benefiting neither from the land and forests exploited by outside timber and palm oil companies, nor the region's immense mineral wealth, including gold, copper and other metals, they say.
This summer, the International Crisis Group reported at least 15 violent incidents in the provincial capital Jayapura in May and June, and others in the central highlands.
Since the former Dutch colony was annexed in 1969, a small armed group known as the Free Papua Organization (OPM) has been fighting for Papuan independence.
Human rights groups estimate some 100,000 Papuans have died in the conflict since the 1960s, while local media regularly report on clashes between the OPM and security forces.
Economic marginalization, coupled with an ongoing influx of labour migrants from elsewhere in Indonesia continues to fuel tension, particularly over the issue of jobs.
In many of the region's cities and towns, non-native Papuans are now in a majority, and tensions between the two groups are not uncommon, as are reports of the government's often heavy-handed response towards the indigenous population.
"We continue to receive credible reports that Indonesian security forces are committing unlawful killings, and torture [in the Papua region]. They're using excessive force when carrying out arrests or during public policing, and are criminalizing peaceful political activism," said Josef Roy Benedict, Amnesty International's Indonesia campaigner, based in London.
These actions violate the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Indonesia is a state party of the former and has ratified the latter convention, Benedict added.
Some aid groups not welcome
"We'd welcome the help of more international organizations, but there's a need for the government to open up the space for them to see the reality here," said Julianus Septer Manufandu, executive secretary of the Papua NGO Forum, a network of 118 local NGOs assisting Papuans in human rights, land disputes, natural resources and emergency response.
Currently, five UN agencies are working in the region.
The Indonesian Red Cross (PMI) is also on the ground, assisting with blood donations, cataract operations and disaster management.
"We're neutral, so we give victims of the [low-level] conflict humanitarian assistance and the government has no problem with that," said PMI Secretary-General Budi Atmadi Adiputro.
However, others have been less successful.
"One reason why our MoU [memorandum of understanding] was not renewed was because we supported local partners who were involved in human rights work," said Ernest Schoffelen, a programme officer with the Catholic Organization for Relief and Development (Cordaid), a Dutch development agency working in the area of health, peace-building, inter-religious dialogue and human rights in the region for over 50 years.
"Papuans were very welcoming of the aid we provided," Schoffelen said. "The resistance to our presence came more from central government. They didn't want us to be there."
Tortuous NGO registration process
"Everything goes through the Indonesian Foreign Ministry and BIN [the Indonesian State Intelligence Agency]," said one international aid worker who asked not be named, adding it could take 1-3 years for an international NGO to be registered. "All INGOs [international NGOs] proposing to work in Indonesia must appear before an interdepartmental panel, in which the specific ministry or department under which the INGO would work argues the case for the INGO to be allowed."
Those involved in peace-building activities face an even tougher time, he added.
"The level of scrutiny on the part of BIN is extremely high," the aid worker said. "For groups working in peace-building advocacy or legal affairs - which are considered political activities rather than technical development - there's virtually no chance."
ICRC first opened an office in Jayapura (Papuan capital) in 1989. The office was closed in 2009 following an instruction from the Indonesian government, also addressed to a number of other organizations.
Prior to 2009, ICRC delivered water access and sustainable living environment programmes; international humanitarian law (IHL) dissemination work with the military, police and journalists; and detention visits to ensure the humane treatment of prisoners.
The government reportedly raised objections to the ICRC's presence in Papua for not reporting prison visits to the authorities.
Today the ICRC's presence in the two provinces is limited to ad hoc missions from the head office in Jakarta.
"We still play a supporting role to the work of the Indonesian Red Cross there, and we organize punctual activities, such as IHL dissemination sessions for the Air Force in Biak [a small island to the north]," said Patrick Megevand, the ICRC's Jakarta Regional Delegation communication coordinator.
"We hope to go back there on a more sustainable basis. For now, everything depends upon the renewal of an agreement with the government, which we've been negotiating since the closure of the office in 2009."
Security, political considerations
Others cite security concerns and restrictions on freedom of movement, particularly in the interior.
"The work we did there was valuable and there is a need for an international presence," one former aid worker with an INGO that closed down its Papua operation in 2011 claimed, adding however: "Our international staff received threats, and then national staff started to receive threats from the government."
Oxfam's country director Richard Mawer, said security was not affecting their work on the ground there, but added that all INGOs were finding it increasingly difficult to be given approval to work there, and now required special permission to implement any new initiatives.
The Indonesian government, meanwhile, says it is just operating standard procedures.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Michael Tene told IRIN there were no special requirements for INGOs to work in Papua, noting that there were already at least 14 working in the region on health, economic development and natural disaster issues. He added that all must abide by a set of general requirements, which included not engaging in profit-orientated activities or fundraising.
For international NGOs wanting to work in the area of human rights in Papua and West Papua, Tene said:
"Human rights is an important issue in Papua and all of Indonesia, but INGOs must not engage in political activities and must convince the government they do not intend to do this. Their work has to benefit the people [of Papua and West Papua]."
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
Hundreds of thousands of readers trust The New Humanitarian each month for quality journalism that contributes to more effective, accountable, and inclusive ways to improve the lives of people affected by crises.
Our award-winning stories inform policymakers and humanitarians, demand accountability and transparency from those meant to help people in need, and provide a platform for conversation and discussion with and among affected and marginalised people.
We’re able to continue doing this thanks to the support of our donors and readers like you who believe in the power of independent journalism. These contributions help keep our journalism free and accessible to all.
Show your support as we build the future of news media by becoming a member of The New Humanitarian.