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Conversations with refugees in PNG

  • 19 November 2019


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.

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