As a child, Efika Kora remembers watching planes glide over her remote village in the Pacific.
Transfixed, she imagined that one day she would be the one flying them.
Now, just two semesters away from completing a diploma of aviation at an Adelaide school, the 24-year-old has been told by Indonesian authorities she must return to her home country.
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It came as a complete shock to Kora, who is among a group of more than 140 Indigenous West Papuan students in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States who had their Papuan government scholarships terminated without warning.
It means they would have to return home part way through their degrees or diplomas, a situation that has been described as highly unusual.
“To be honest, I cried,” Kora said.
“In a way, [it’s] like your right to education has been stripped away from you.”
16 students ordered home
In Australia, 16 students have been told to return home.
A letter to the Indonesian embassy in Canberra, dated February 8, from the Papuan provincial government said the students were to be repatriated because they had not finished their studies on time.
The letter said they had to return to West Papua by February 15, but it wasn’t until a month later — on March 8 — that the students were first told about the letter in a meeting with the Indonesian embassy.
“I was very, very shocked. And my mind just went blank,” Kora said.
The Indonesian Embassy and the Papuan provincial government have not responded to the ABC’s questions, including about the delay in relaying the message.
Students told ‘you have to take turns’
When the students asked for more details, they were told by the Indonesian Embassy that the five-year duration of their scholarships had now lapsed.
The ABC has seen text messages from an embassy official to one of the students, saying the decision was final.
“There will be no extension of the scholarship because there are still many Papuan students who also need scholarships. So you have to take turns,” one message read.
Kora said she wasn’t aware of a five-year limit to her scholarship.
“We never had like a written letter [saying] our scholarship will be going for five years,” she said.
She said she was told, verbally, she had been awarded the scholarship in 2015, and began her aviation diploma in 2018 after completing language studies.
A number of students have told the ABC they were also not given a formal offer letter or contract stipulating the conditions and duration of their scholarship.
Some students signed contract
Some students said they signed a contract in 2019 — well after their scholarships had commenced — which outlined durations for certain degrees, but Kora said she didn’t sign this document.
Business student Jaliron Kogoya said he also didn’t sign any such agreements.
A sponsorship letter from the Papuan government, issued in 2020, guarantees funding for his degree at the University of South Australia until July this year.
He has also been cut off.
“They just tell us to go home and then there is no hope for us,” Kogoya said.
The University of South Australia said it had been working closely with the students and the Papuan government since they began studying at the university two years ago.
“We are continuing to provide a range of supports to the students at this challenging time,” a spokeswoman said.
About 84 students in the United States and Canada, plus 41 in New Zealand, have also been told by the Papuan government that their scholarships had ended and they must return home.
Programme plagued with administrative issues
While the Papuan government scholarship aims to boost education for Indigenous students, the programme has been plagued with administrative problems.
Several students told the ABC their living allowances, worth $1500 per month, and tuition fees, were sometimes paid late, meaning they could not enrol in university courses and struggled to pay rent.
Kora said late payments held back her academic progression.
Her aviation degree takes approximately four semesters to complete, but Kora said there were certain aspects of her training that she could not do because of unpaid fees.
The ABC has seen invoices from her aviation school, Hartwig Air, that were due in 2018 but were not paid until two years later.
Fees for her current semester, worth $24,500, were paid more than three months late, in October last year.
Kora said there were moments when she felt like giving up.
‘What’s the point?’
“What’s the point of even studying if these things are delaying my studies?” she said.
Kora believes she may have been able to graduate sooner if her fees had been paid on time.
Hartwig Air would not comment on her situation.
But an academic report issued by the school in February this year said Kora was “progressing well with her flying” and getting good results on most of her exams.
Kora said it did not make sense to send her home now because her fees for the current semester had already been paid.
“It’s a waste of investment,” she said.
“If we’re not bringing any qualifications back home, it’s a shame not just for us, but also for the government in a way.”
Students turn to food banks, churches
In the United States, Daniel Game has faced similar struggles.
He was awarded a Papuan government scholarship in 2017.
Game said he was told the scholarship would last five years but did not receive a formal offer letter or contract at the time.
After completing a general science degree, he was accepted into Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Oregon, to begin studying aeronautical science in 2019.
It is a prestigious institution and he was proud to get in.
But, when it came time to enrol, he couldn’t because the government did not issue a sponsorship letter to guarantee his funding.
Game sent multiple emails and made calls to the government’s human resources department requesting the document.
The letter never came
He said he was told the letter would be issued, but that never happened.
During this time, Game continued to receive a living allowance from the Papuan government and was told his scholarship was still valid.
In 2020, Game paid for his own flight back to West Papua in the middle of the pandemic to try to resolve the issue in person.
When he visited the department office, his sponsorship letter was issued immediately.
The ordeal set Game’s studies back more than 18 months.
His sponsorship letter, seen by the ABC, guarantees his funding until July 2023 but now he’s also been told to return home.
“Most of us, we spend our time and energy and work really hard … it’s not fair,” Game said.
Staying in the US
With just a few months until he’s due to graduate, Game has decided to stay in the US.
His family are funding his university tuition, but without a living allowance, Game said he was struggling to make ends meet.
“It’s really hard, especially being in the US,” he said.
“For food, I usually go out searching local churches and food pantries where I’ll be able to get free stuff.”
‘It doesn’t make sense’
Back in Australia, students are also in financial strife.
Kora has started picking fruit and vegetables on local farms to make ends meet since her living allowance was cut off in November last year.
Tried to find part-time jobs
“We tried to find part-time jobs here and there to just cover us for our rent,” she said.
She and other students are hoping to stay in Australia and finish their degrees.
From a low-income family, Kora cannot rely on her parents, so she is calling on Australian universities and the federal government for support.
“I just want to make my family proud back home to know that actually, someone like me, can be something,” she said.
The Australian West Papua Association of South Australia has launched a fundraising campaign to pay some students’ university fees and rent.
Kylie Agnew, a psychologist and association member, said she was concerned for their wellbeing.
“Not being able to finish your studies, returning to a place with very low job prospects … there’s a lot of stress that the students are under,” she said.
Jim Elmslie is co-convenor of the West Papua Project at the University of Wollongong, which advocates for peace and justice in West Papua.
He said the decision to send students home so close to finishing their degrees was perplexing.
“After having expended probably in excess of $100,000, or maybe considerably more, in paying multiple years’ university fees and living allowances … it doesn’t make sense,” Dr Elmslie said.
In a text message to one student in Australia, an Indonesian Embassy official said the students could seek alternative funding for their studies, but they were “no longer the responsibility” of the Papuan provincial government.
The text message also said the students would receive help to transfer to relevant degrees at universities in Indonesia when they returned home.
But Dr Elmslie said the alternatives were not ideal.
“If you start a degree course in Australia, to me, it’s much better … to finish that degree course,” he said.
“And then you have a substantial academic qualification.”
President of the Council of International Students Australia Oscar Ong said the situation was highly unusual.
He said that, while some international students weren’t able to graduate within the duration of their scholarship, for so many to be recalled at once was unprecedented.
Legislative change and redistribution of funding
The Papuan provincial government did not respond to the ABC’s detailed questions about the scholarship program.
Local media reports suggest the issue may be linked to a redistribution of funding.
The scholarship programme was set up by the Papuan provincial government, with money from the Indonesian central government under a Special Autonomy Law.
Passed in 2001, the bill granted special autonomy to the West Papua region, following a violent and decades-long fight for independence.
The old law expired in November and new legislation was passed, with an overall boost in finance to the region but with certain funds, including support for education, going towards districts and cities instead of provincial governments.
That revised law has sparked protests in West Papua, with critics claiming it is an extension of colonial rule that denies Indigenous peoples’ rights to self-determination.
An Interior Ministry official from the Indonesian government is quoted in local media as saying there needed to be a joint conversation between the Papuan provincial government and the region’s districts and cities about the future of scholarship funding.
The ABC has been unable to independently verify whether the students’ scholarship terminations are linked to this legislative change.
Additional reporting for Pacific Beat by Hellena Souisa and Erwin Renaldi. Republished with permission.