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Conversations with refugees in PNG



In a motel's car park in the balmy air of two-seasons tropical Port Moresby, I had an invigorating conversation with a man who asked me about snow. 'Does it snow in Melbourne? I have not seen snow in six years. Where I am from there are seasons, and a foot of snow in the winter.' He had a curiosity about everyday life, culture and religions. It was apparent he has had time to think on many different things.

Members of the Catholic delegation to PNG pictured with Behrouz Boochani (centre). Boochani can be seen presenting a copy of his book No Friend but the Mountains to Bishop Vincent Long of the Diocese of Parramatta.Another man told me he has not seen his family in six years. His son is now 23, with a disability, and his family are in the camps of Bangladesh, stateless. He has no answer as to his legal status as refugee.

In spite of the six years spent in PNG, some of these men still do not know if they will be considered refugees or not. Even those who have been recognised as refugees know that title still doesn't mean much. 'Refugees/not refugees — here it is all the same,' a man tells me with a shrug. There seems to be both recognition of the impossibility of the situation for all who have been left here — but also an attitude that no one should be left behind. Their solidarity and mateship has been forged through bonds far stronger than any UN ratified convention or category.

In Australia, being accepted as a refugee is a thing to be celebrated. Although the 'legacy' caseload remains an exception, where people are only granted three or five-year protection visas, generally when Australia recognises someone as a refugee, this status allows the lifelong security of a permanent, safe and secure future in Australia. It is not that it isn't still tough to secure work or integrate with Australian culture, but the fear of being returned can slowly dissipate.

There are a few refugees who are living in the community in PNG, now with their new families, and trying to find some work, but this path is truly difficult and an impossibility for the majority. While there has been some hospitality shown to West Papuan refugees it has been in the spirit of 'Melanesian brotherhood' with little formal recognition and associated rights afforded.

There is no tradition of — or institutional support for — refugee resettlement in PNG, and the local way of life, how private property is conceived and the complexity of cultural differences is stark for the men Australia has transported there.

The men I spoke with talked about the many relationships they have made over the six years in PNG, their interest and confusion at aspects of cultural difference, of systems and politics in this unique country. They speak of the many differences between themselves; it is an incredible mix of cultures, backgrounds and stories rich with a confusion of anecdotes — loved ones and family from back in their country of origin, frustrations with the system they have been dealing with now for years and a fascination with the Australian electoral cycle and media rhetoric.


"Some did not speak much beyond a greeting, their eyes seemed to easily lose focus, staring out into the dark before being roused back to the present if a question or comment is directed towards them."


The time span is significant and they have weathered many storms. There have been waves of protest, mental illness and self-harm. They have seen riots, death and brutality, and received hospitality and disdain in seemingly equal measure. They have often been dismissed, but at other times listened to and heard across the world.

The Medevac transfer process has been difficult. Some have been transported to Australia for treatment, while others I spoke with have been accepted but inexplicably their transfers, sometimes for months, are delayed. Medevac is vital for getting much-needed medical treatment, but it was evident to me that this legislation alone holds no answer for their deeper ailment, which goes beyond solely physical health needs.

Some did not speak much beyond a greeting, their eyes seemed to easily lose focus, staring out into the dark before being roused back to the present if a question or comment is directed towards them.

The Catholic Church in PNG has reached out in support to the refugee group in various ways. The conditions these men find themselves in, a controlled existence with an indefinite period of waiting, has often compromised their human dignity. The Church has been both an outspoken advocate and a source of comfort and material support to many.

'You have traded the mountains of Pakistan for the slums of Port Moresby — a bad choice,' local senior priest Fr Giorgio Licini says to one man. Although the comment was taken with intended joviality, the reply to it trailed off, tinged with sadness: 'It is not the place, it is the people there ...' The man looks off into the night, now quiet. The 'people' are those that he fled from more than seven years ago. A memory, but it holds fast, visceral.

Licini is kept busy in his role as General Secretary for the Bishops Conference of PNG and Solomon Islands, but he spends most Sunday afternoons and some evenings visiting the men. He continues to publicly advocate regarding the ongoing lack of choice these men have had regarding their situation. He is well known and clearly well liked.

Although there will be much to do in regards to public comment, practical following up with material needs, and advocating for complementary or alternative pathways and resettlement options, the everyday-ness of these men's lives and conversation will be what remains with me. The knowledge that they are truly human persons with now six years of rich, interesting and traumatic life experiences, at my country's behest, is haunting.



Josh Lourensz coordinates the Catholic Alliance for People Seeking Asylum, a broad alliance of organisations, parishes, individuals and peak bodies from across the Catholic community, which is co-convened by Jesuit Social Services and Jesuit Refugee Service (Australia). He visited Port Moresby for a few days over the first weekend of November as part of a delegation of leaders from across the Catholic community.

Topic tags: Joshua Lourensz, Manus Island, asylum seekers, refugees, Papua New Guinea



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Existing comments

I've just been reading a review of a book ("Invented Lives" Andrea Goldsmith) about which I've been curious. These are four stories about the state of exile and, in some senses, we are all exiles in shared isolation. I would in no way minimise the trauma, alienation and humiliation these men have endured and at our nation's behest. Just a gentle nod to reconciling past and present identities. PNG has many social problems and Australia has been generous in monetary terms to our near neighbour. Perhaps time now to invest in other ways, since our policymakers seem set on their course of non-acknowledgement of refugee status of these men.

Pam | 18 November 2019  

Pam, we must all admit that since the days of children overboard, compassion and respect for human rights are not standard equipment on the LNP model. They were optional extras thrown overboard with the bathwater. Dont you see an enormous discrepancy between the way thousands of illegal overstay Chinese visas are treated and the poor devils that tried to escape religious persecution in Pakistan?

francis Armstrong | 19 November 2019  

Francis, yes, it is a discrepancy. The government should be consistent in its approach to immigration centred on compassion and a way of seeing people as important not just for their skills and qualifications but as people who may need shelter and a true home. Pragmatism must play a part until they (the government) see the light.

Pam | 19 November 2019  

The most ‘democratic’ way to seek a policy opinion is a plebiscite. If how to respond to boat asylum seekers is one of those rare issues which oppose the challenge of how not to endanger the moral identity of society by being grossly immoral against how not to endanger its political integrity by being dangerously impractical, it would seem a natural question for the public at large, as the ultimate and supposedly sturdy yeomen guardians of their society, to consider. Of course, the side that supports moral purity above all else suspects that a practical public will, in a voice of finality, ruin their ambitions forever while the side that supports pragmatism will be concerned that a wafer-thin majority ‘Brexit accident’ might happen and that the same finality might make the country permanently borderless. University Pol Sci 101 students fresh out of Thunberg-era schools might want to realise that even democracy is conditional upon practicality, that not all great questions can safely be entrusted to the public to answer, and that a ceaseless to-and-fro between elites in sessions of parliament that cannot bind each other is how to ensure that policy mistakes can be fixed.

roy chen yee | 20 November 2019  

I doubt any man from the Manus group would describe their lives over the past six years as ‘rich’ or ‘interesting’. I don’t know what the imperative for this story was, but it does do an incredibly traumatised, vilified and abused group justice.

Janet Pelly | 24 November 2019  

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