Fifty years of Papuans in the Netherlands

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Their lives are in the Netherlands but their hearts are back in Indonesian West Papua. Fifty years ago, around 500 Papuans came to the Netherlands. They refused to live under Indonesian rule after the former Dutch colony fell in Indonesian hands between 1962 and 1963. Meanwhile their children and grandchildren have been born here. They live in tight-knit communities. Papua is still their homeland.

Muaha Tatipata-Ireeuw was born and bred in South Delft. She still lives there with her Moluccan husband and her son and daughter. A woodcarving from Papua stands on top of the sideboard in her Dutch living room. She bought it a couple of years ago, when she went ‘back’ to her country for the first time.

Next to the sideboard, there is a bunch of spears, thin bamboo sticks with razor-sharp, tropical wooden spearheads. “From my father’s village. They were made by the old people, as my father calls them.” There is a wooden shield displaying a man’s head. It’s from Papua originally, but she bought it at the Waterlooplein flea market in Amsterdam.

Muaha often heard about her homeland from her parents, about life there, the family, the tribes and their traditions. She says she’s Papuan. “I will never say I’m Dutch. It is my nationality, but I do not feel Dutch. I don’t identify with Dutch people.”

Even her children do not consider themselves Dutch. Their friends know their parents are Moluccan and Papuan. “It is difficult, it’s a feeling. I was born and bred here. My roots are here, but my parents roots are there. They passed them on to me. That makes me Papuan,” says Muaha.


Muaha takes me to an apartment around the corner, where her parents moved 40 years ago. Her father, Max Ireeuw, gives us a cup of coffee and a biscuit, like any Dutch person would. There are more artifacts from Papua than in his daughter’s house.

There is a wood carving of two men, one standing on the shoulders of the other. “It comes from the Asmat region. It is a symbol of fertility, which is at the heart of our society. It is the community that counts, not the individual.”

He gets out a cassette recorder and plays traditional music. He learned the dance that goes with it as a young man.

Max Ireeuw was 20 when he came to the Netherlands in the 1960s. “I was the first person to receive a grant from the church. I used it to learn good Dutch first and then to learn a trade. Where I come from you can always find all you need in the jungle. But you have to adapt to survive. The language is important. You have to learn the language, the tradition and the structure. Then you feel safer.”

Mr Ireeuw worked for the government until he retired. He always speaks Dutch to his children, but Indonesian with his wife. They are from different tribes, so they do not understand each other’s language. Nowadays, there are around 2,000 people in the Netherlands with roots in Indonesian Papua.


It is not just the second generation who have a strong bond with the mother country. One of his older grandchildren, Melvin, has tattoos demonstrating his Papuan identity. A paradise bird and a Papuan flag. “The bird is a symbol of pride and beauty. I thought I should show what my country and my background mean to me.”

In 2011, Melvin went to the villages his grandparents came from for the first time. “I met many of my relatives. Lots of pieces of the puzzle fell into place. Things I missed were confirmed. Things like a sense of love, community and family. I don’t feel less at home in the Netherlands, but I know that I could live in different places. I felt their warmth.”

Most Papuans live in the Indonesian province of West Papua (formerly Irian Jaya) and in independent state of Papua New Guinea in the eastern part of the huge island. Many Papuans in the Netherlands want to see independence in the western part of the island, a large region with its own mineral resources.

One of the best-known leaders was Marcus Kaisiepo, Max Ireeuw’s father-in-law. Their mother country draws Max, Muaha and Melvin, but they refuse to live under Indonesian rule. Their traditional freedoms and property are not recognised by Indonesia. At least, in the Netherlands, they are free.


Photos by Bodil Anais in (Dutch) publication Birds of Paradise in the Polder: