Three debut poets: (2) Ephraim Toirima
Kevin Rudd, you're not a good friend of PNG

Understand PNG – and know this plan is disastrous

VICTORIA STEAD | Fairfax Media

Off to PNG (Photo - Australian Immigration Department)THE PLAN TO SEND ALL boat-arriving asylum seekers to Papua New Guinea — and to resettle there all who qualify as genuine refugees — is a cynical abandonment by Australia of its responsibilities under the UN refugee convention, one that can be considered only a ploy for votes in the coming tightly contested federal election.

Some understanding of politics and society in Papua New Guinea goes some way to understanding just how breathtakingly ill-considered the plan is.

Many opponents of the plan have painted Papua New Guinea as impoverished and underdeveloped. The implication here is that sending asylum seekers to Manus Island is cruel because Papua New Guinea is a hellish place to be.

To be sure, conditions at the existing asylum-seeker processing centre (pictured) have been found by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to be ''harsh'' and below international protection standards, and there are plenty of challenges facing PNG, not least endemic corruption, something that does not bode well for this scheme.

And it is also true that PNG simply does not have the services required to absorb the incoming refugee population. Health and schooling services are already inadequate for local populations. Mental health services are largely non-existent.

If the Australian government bankrolls these services in its funding of the refugees' resettlement costs, it will be hugely expensive, and will most likely also breed resentment (fairly enough) among a local population that does not have access to them.

However, it is also the case that PNG is, for many of its citizens, far from hellish. And somewhat ironically, the reasons this is so are also the reasons this resettlement plan is likely to be so catastrophic.

The overwhelming majority of land in PNG - the oft-quoted figure is 97%, although this is likely to be too high - is held under customary tenure. This means that land is owned by customary land-owning groups such as clans and tribes, and access to land is made possible by membership in those groups.

What is strong about this system is that it means that most Papua New Guineans have access to land, to housing and to gardens to feed themselves. Because of this, many have a quality of life far above that of people in other developing countries.

So when Papua New Guinea is described as ''impoverished'', as Greens leader Christine Milne described it in her comments after Kevin Rudd's announcement on Friday, this assumes a definition of poverty as something measured in terms of cash income.

Such measures can be deeply misrepresentative in countries such as Papua New Guinea, where people may earn little cash income, but nonetheless eat well and own their own land.

The customary land system provides an effective safety net for Papua New Guineans, but it also means that life will be tremendously difficult for resettled refugees. Because they are outsiders, they will not have land.

Their options then are to settle as squatters on the customary land of others - something likely to engender conflict. Subsistence agriculture is unlikely to be a viable option for many who may have no experience of such a livelihood and are unfamiliar with the climate and geography.

At any rate, as settlers they would not have access to land to grow food. They would be precariously positioned, and poor by every definition.

So, they will join the country's already overcrowded urban towns and cities. Here, the rental market — often conducted on the border of illegality, since very little land in PNG is formally titled as freehold — is limited and extraordinarily expensive.

In Port Moresby, for instance, a modest two-bedroom house can easily be on the market for one million kina, about $500,000, this in a country where the minimum wage is just over K100 (about $50) a week. The rental on a basic one-bedroom unit could easily be K800 a week.

The opportunities for resettled refugees to earn income — any income, let alone enough to afford a decent quality of life — will be minimal. Papua New Guinea's formal-sector economy is very small, and already unable to accommodate school leavers and others looking for work. Some resettled refugees may be able to find employment, but most, it seems fair enough to say, will not.

A third option will be to join the growing populations of PNG's urban squatter settlements, living in conditions that can be very poor, often without basic services, and in environments that can be strongly shaped by ethnic and language-based identities.

Neither the Papua New Guinean nor the Australian government has announced where those asylum seekers found to be genuine refugees will be settled. The former, presumably, realises just how disastrous this will be, which raises the question of what on earth Prime Minister Peter O'Neill has had to gain from agreeing to the deal.

Rudd may or may not realise how ill thought out it is. With an election on the horizon, and with this smacking every bit of a cynical move to garner votes, he may or may not care.

Victoria Stead is a researcher at RMIT University's Globalism Research Centre and has conducted research in PNG for the past six years


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Paul Yabob

The decision to resettle Australia's boat people refugees in PNG is a stupid decision.

It is a stupid decision by Kevin Rudd because he shows no understanding or empathy for PNG and its people,and where they in development stakes. It is a selfish decision by Rudd to garner votes.

It is a selfish decision by Peter Oneil to look good in the face of Rudd and Australia so that he can carry on doing what he is doing to PNG at the moment (you guess) and he needs Australia to turn a blind eye to his activities.

The reality is that the people of PNG do not want any Australia bound (boat people) refugees full stop!

The Irian Jayan refugees are an exception as they are Melanesian and part of our family, our shared stock culture and history.

We don't want refugees in PNG that were meant for Australia to process.

Marcus Mapen

I don't think these two guys are really serious about resettling refugees in PNG. They have other intentions, one of which is to scare off the ‘boat refugees’ and that already seems to be working from day one.

I have a feeling we might not see a single refugee settled anywhere in PNG, but if I’m wrong it won’t be that many (a few hundred) and anyone resettled will be a genuine refugee who wouldn’t care much about how they exist as long as they are free from whatever they are running away from and have the basics in life available to them.

There are already heaps of Asians living in PNG so what is wrong with having a few more? Is it that Arabs, Persians (and Africans) are more special than the Chinese and Indians?

Francis Sina Nii

Australia under the might of its financial power has bullied, dictated and imposed on PNG its egostic and ill-fated policy agenda that are detrimental to PNG on many policy fronts.

The OBE and HIV/AIDS policies are two examples and now the asylum seeker or refugee issue.

Officially Australia is not a good friend of PNG. It has always been shoving its agenda down PNG's throat under the might of its boomerang dollar without proper debate and assessment of the implications on the local population.

David Wall

I would be very surprised if many refugees end up in PNG as a result of the Rudd/O'Neill agreement, so all this concern about what they will do is in my opinion misguided. There's a very good chance that the boats will stop!

Sione Olewale

From the information I have gathered from reading news both print & electronically, the swift decision by the PM' s of PNG & Australia to use Papua New Guinea as an alternative resettlement home for refugees leaves a lot to be desired.

The nation of Papua New Guinea has been hoodwinked by two desperate men, one on the eve of an election the other in the name of benefits.

Honourable Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea, Mr Peter O'Neil the long term impact of this decision you have made on behalf of the country far outweighs any benefits will get from it.

This pilot project you and the Honourable Prime Minister of Australia have rushed thru is ludicrous.

Mr PNG PM, Can you in your wisdom clearly explain what the Regional resettlement package (valid for the next year, subject to review thereafter) is? When Papua New Guinea as a nation faces its own challenges and problems.

Can you tell us?

1. What studies in PNG have been done on the effect it will have on the nation?

2. Does PNG have the capacity to take on such a huge responsibility?

3. What has the PM of Australia told you they are doing about addressing the issue in Indonesia, where most of these boat people’s journey start from?

4. You yourself mentioned at the press conference that “Papua New Guinea as a country, it might not be widely reported, but we also have our own refugee issues. For many years, over tens of thousands of refugees in our country.” How have we as a country handled that…. Really?

5. “So we hope that the boat will stop and there will be nobody coming to Manus and that is the objective of these arrangements.” Your comments at the press conference in Brisbane, what has that got to say about PNG?

6. A decision like this does not take a day (In you & Mr Rudd’s case it took a week) to come to agreement, why did you not get a nationwide view on this issue?

For the common good of our country our Honourable Prime Minister please re negotiate or end this agreement altogether now.

Until we as a country can deal/ control our own problems and issues, we cannot help with other countries problems in such a big way.

Paul Oates

While the fine print on this proposal is yet be drafted, let alone printed and distributed, the essence of the matter is clearly aimed at having a proposal, albeit unworkable, to provide a short term fix for the gullible electorate at the upcoming general election.

The proposal is even now starting to unravel anyway as the press start looking at the implications and it could well rebound on Rudd in the near future.

He will of course then come up with another possibly unworkable proposal that if elected, would go the same way as many of his previous policies after he was elected.

The type of journalism the proposal spawned in the ‘popular press’ aught to be treated with the proverbial ‘pinch of salt’. Articles like these should be ignored for what they are and not dignified by further debate.

However, as originally observed by John Milton in 1634, ‘Every cloud has a silver lining’. (

To my knowledge, PNG has not been given the same ‘airing’ or focus in the Australian press since World War II. Everyone now knows where our closest neighbour is and has seen pictures of her people and her leaders.

The excellent interview with Manus MP Ronnie Knight shown on Australian television last night demonstrated an erudite, practical and humorous response by a PNG leader to this ‘pie in the sky’ proposal. Mr Knight may have a bright future ahead of him.

While I’m not suggesting Rudd’s political ‘blancmange’ is the way to promote PNG, given an appropriate response, perhaps it might actually start people thinking and caring about our closest friends and neighbours?

What it does however reveal is how Rudd and his team view PNG.

Robin Lillicrapp

O' what tangled webs we weave... Australia's desperate moves to disengage from an increasingly volatile "refugee" problem has brought it into conflict with policy decisions of its own making.

Did government protest as vigorously when imposts were made upon the economy by decisions made to join the forces of the "coalition of the willing" which upon review is a running sore in terms of the havoc created by destruction wrought in nations occupied and "defended" in the name of freedom (money and oil).

No. In a now cynical undertone, the transmigration flows emanating from a handful of nations are adding to the woes endured by flagging western economies languishing under the burden of increasing debt loads and failing production capacities.

PNG has simply become a convenient and disposable stopgap in a war of spin and hype intended to further delude and mystify a jaded public appetite for fixing problems, I contend, were originally contrived to wreak deliberate havoc; to fashion out of the chaos, a world of of collectivist rather than independent identities.

Mrs Barbara Short

Very well said, Victoria.

It is just a pity that so many Australians have little knowledge of PNG. One good point of this whole disastrous exercise is that many Australians will now hear more about PNG.

They may even find out where it is located. They may even see a PNG person on TV and hear about the way of life in PNG.

The present Labor party merry-go-round may hopefully get shown for what it really is - a silly political ploy.

It is a trick to get Iranians etc and "economic refugees" to think twice about using the "Indonesian ricketty old fishing boat method" to get to Australia and claim refugee status, because if they do they end up in PNG.

Most Australians can lead a very fortunate life if they work hard at school and get an education and try hard to find a job that suits them.

Refugees given the right to stay in Australia can do just the same sort of thing and end up with a "good life".

Vistoria has explained how it would be much harder to do this in PNG today.

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