Refugee rift piques PNG's anti Australian sentiment

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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.

Manus Island detention centreThe 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 (e.g. local Member of Parliament 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.

 

"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 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 DeslandesAnn Deslandes is a freelance writer and researcher from Sydney. Read her other writing at xterrafirma.net and tweet her @Ann_dLandes.

Topic tags: Ann Deslandes, Manus Island, refugees, Papua New Guinea


 

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Existing comments

Those men who can't be resettled in the USA should be immediately be brought to Australia, along with all the refugees in Nauru. Our politicians have been playing politics with the lives of these desperate people. The boats have largely stopped and those that still come will be turned back, so there's no excuse for the Australian Government to continue it's cruel policy of off-shore detention. Jesus gave us the Golden Rule, but even so-called Christian politicians aren't applying the Golden Rule in the treatment of our asylum seekers.
Grant Allen | 23 September 2017


Well said Ann - hope this starts further discussion. It has been a tipping point for many Papua New Guineans. And it should be.
Elizabeth | 23 September 2017


You write, Ann: "Many [PNG] 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?" There is little question about the hard-heartedness of the Australian government towards refugees; nor is there much doubt that this policy is supported by many Australians. But there is another viewpoint that might be considered. Instead of viewing the problem as an unwarranted cost on PNG, the positive scenario might be that some of these asylum seekers, should they stay in PNG, may in the years ahead, contribute to a richer and more diverse culture in that country. They have experiences, borne of suffering, that make them potentially very strong. Australia has been a country that has benefitted so much from asylum seekers and new arrivals. It does of course still have an immigration policy and the total intake of this policy is being questioned by people such as Dick Smith. The facts are that many asylum seekers in PNG are experiencing a better life than in the horror of the worlds they have fled. So don't underestimate them: they have much to contribute to such a troubled country.
Peter | 24 September 2017


Dear Anne, being a Manusian, living in Australia I agree have you have expressed. It has saddened me more of how this solution had brought bad name to my Home. Have written an article which I would like to send it to you to help me. Please need your help. Thank you Paul Sireh 0411733425
Rev Paul Sireh | 25 September 2017


Time to renegotiate deal with NZ.
Florence Howarth | 25 September 2017


If there’s anything worse than the colonialist mentality of getting others less economically well off to do your dirty work simply because you can, it’s the colonialist who is a cheapskate. If a detention centre needs to be built overseas (and there’s no need because they can all be built here), they should be on national sovereignties with micro-populations such as Nauru because, at the end of the day, like the US awarding citizenship to foreign nationals who serve in its armed forces or France doing the same for the Foreign Legion, micro-populations can be rewarded for service to Australia’s border integrity with citizenship here. And, of course, detention is not synonymous with cruelty or illegitimate economic activity. Detention, like criminal imprisonment and institutional accommodation of the mentally ill, is only a species of hostel and concierge services. Cruelty, when it happens, indicates lack of professional skill, something that can be remedied by training in ethos and procedures.
Roy Chen Yee | 25 September 2017


"Colonial Master" "former Australian Colony" (sic) 'Ms Deslandes? Do.you know what the relevant League of Nations Mandate entailed? Aussie KIAPs suppressed an ancient NG Gourmet tradition: having the neighbouring villagers over fo dinner, ANN-thropophagy.
james marchment | 26 September 2017


An appalling bipartisan consensus or wedge for both cu!tidally specific led LNP and Labor, with much input from the sidelines. What one cannot understand is that Abbott et al. whom are Catholic, yet informed via US thinks which present as conservative Christian with big business support aka oligarchs, but nativist in nature ie. Hispanics, blacks etc. not welcome, but nowadays white Irish Catholics and Jews are? Is it any coincidence that many of the old WASP oligarchs and/or foundations not only believe in the primacy of the state (while acting globally for their own interests), but have had a strong interest in eugenics and national socialism?
Andrew J. Smith | 29 September 2017


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