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Refugee rift piques PNG's anti Australian sentiment

Ann Deslandes

ANN DESLANDES | Eureka Street

SYDNEY - As Behrouz Boochani reports from Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, a number of the over 900 refugee men who have been detained there by Australia will soon fly to the United States where, under the fraught deal struck between the US and Australian governments in 2016, they will be allowed to settle.

The Australian government is shutting down the detention centre on Manus while many of the refugees who have been detained there over the past four years are demanding, as they have from the beginning, that they be afforded the human right of being permitted to settle in Australia — a country where they are likely to be safe from war, poverty, and persecution.

They have suffered beatings, deaths, and endemic mental illness in detention on Manus, and the alternatives being suggested by the Australian government — settlement in PNG or return to the country from which they are seeking asylum — are no better for them.

That the men are even in PNG is due to another deal, struck in 2013 between the Australian and Papua New Guinean prime ministers, known as the regional resettlement agreement.

What is the impact of this ostensible regional partnership on relations between Australia and PNG? The agreement, such as it was, is now arguably in tatters. The suffering of the refugees in detention, the abuse of their human rights, has been monumental.

Manusians and Papua New Guineans more broadly have had this suffering in their faces, often finding themselves blamed for it, such as when refugees have been attacked by locals outside of detention on the island.

Plans to resettle the refugees in the US have been the subject of international scandal, stopping and starting several times before the current assurance that some 50 will be flown there soon.

Many of the jobs promised by Australia for the remittance-dependent Manus Island have not materialised, and Manusians (like former parliamentarian Ronny Knight) have repeatedly expressed concern about the volatility of a situation where so many men are held in poor conditions with no realistic exit point in sight.

Australia has shown no intention of intervening to improve the situation for the refugees, nor for PNG. In this, we have probably brought relations between the prosperous island nation and its former dependent territory to its lowest ebb in decades.

Many Papua New Guineans feel that Australia has ducked its responsibility to resettle refugees and treated PNG like a dumping ground.

Knight has suggested PNG could declare the refugees illegal residents and deport them to Australia, while the PNG Attorney-General has warned that his country is “not going to allow a situation where Australia has withdrawn”.

From the Pacific Islands Forum this month prime minister Peter O'Neill said he is appealing to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in the absence of help from Australia.

One senior development consultant, an Australian with decades of experience in the region, told me they've never seen such significant anti-Australia sentiment in PNG public discourse.

This makes sense. A former colony of Australia, PNG grapples with social problems on a scale unknown to our prosperous country. Many of its citizens are working hard to overcome political corruption, poverty, and conflict.

Why should Papua New Guineans have to also absorb the costs of resettling refugees who sought asylum in Australia, simply because their wealthy neighbour and former colonial master says they must? This must feel especially biting in the face of failed promises of economic investment from Australia.

Many Australians would agree: it's not a good idea to piss off your neighbours. I wonder what will be the consequences of the last four years for the deeply intertwined investment, trade and aid relationships between us close neighbours in the Pacific.

Ann Deslandes is a freelance writer and researcher. Twitter: @Ann_dLandes.


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