“We're miserable here. There are no jobs, nothing,” said Noan Nayager, 29, sitting on a bench in front of his new 35 square metre house in Keerom district, 60 kilometres north of the provincial capital, Jayapura, near the PNG border.
After three years of living in a temporary shelter, Nayager recently moved into his own government-funded house, one of a row of newly finished brick homes overlooking a palm oil plantation. Each home has its own well in front of it.
Scores of Indonesian Papuans fled the fighting in a separatist conflict that peaked in the 1980s and still continues, although at lower intensity. They sought refuge across the border in PNG and lived there for decades. Many now have children who were born in PNG.
Nayager, who was a little boy when his father took him to PNG, returned to Papua with hundreds of others in 2009, leaving behind jobs and lives. “In PNG our lives were better. We could work in construction, in shops or even in banks, but here we don't even know if we're going to eat tomorrow,” he said.
He occasionally gets part-time work in road construction or on a palm farm and can earn up to 700,000 rupiah (US$60 ) a month, but this is a fraction of the province's $166 minimum wage.
A May 2013 census bureau report says only 17 percent of Papua’s 1.6 million labour force has steady full-time income. Some 38 percent are considered unpaid domestic help, and another 45 percent are self-employed or in part-time work. But analysts say the situation is even tougher for returnees. Some have returned to PNG because they saw no future in Indonesia, Nayager said, and he might eventually do the same.
Papua, a mainly ethnic Melanesian region located on half of New Guinea island, has been the scene of a low-level separatist conflict since the 1960s, when Indonesia took control of it from the Dutch. In the 1970s and 80s, Indonesian military operations targeting the separatist group, known as the Free Papua Movement, forced more than 10,000 rebels and ordinary people simply fleeing the fighting to cross the border to PNG, where the residents share ethnic and linguistic ties with Papuans. Papua region is now divided into Papua and West Papua provinces
According to a June 2013 report by the Germany-based International Coalition for Papua, Indonesian forces continue to engage in abuses, including extrajudicial killings, torture and arbitrary arrests, without being held accountable, allegations the government denies.
In July 2012, dozens of residents in Keerom fled into the jungle during a military operation following the murder of a village chief for which separatists were blamed.
More than 1,000 former refugees have returned from PNG to Papua and thousands of others have expressed interest, Papuan officials told IRIN. Keerom district official Syaharuddin Ramli said about 6,000 refugees remained on the other side of the border. The government has built nearly 50 homes in Keerom, but it is not clear how returnees in other Papuan districts are faring.
Lovelyn Sudumero, 20, said her family returned to Keerom because Papuan officials appealed to the refugees to “come home”. “Officials came to us in PNG and persuaded us to return. They said they would give us food and take good care of us,” said Sudumero, who has a two-year-old daughter.
“They stopped giving us food after some time and my father is still jobless,” she said. Her husband works as a motorcycle taxi driver. The children of some returnees have stopped going to school to help their parents make a living, she said.
Franciscus Xaverius Motte, a spokesman for Papuan governor Lukas Enembe, said the government is addressing returnees’ grievances. “It happened during the previous provincial government [in power until early 2013]. We'll look into what agreement was made, and if there are problems, we'll fix them.”