An entry in The Crocodile Prize
PNG Chamber of Mines & Petroleum
Award for Essays & Journalism
“MY father is from Syria and my mother is from Simbu,” was the response from the seven-year old girl when asked by the teacher to introduce herself to the class.
This hypothetical scenario might come to pass once the asylum seekers on Manus Island are processed and resettled in Papua New Guinea as refugees.
The uneducated rural population is ignorant of what is happening nationally.
The Manus situation is meaningless to people who do not understand the importance of foreign policy, how to vote for credible leaders in national elections or corruption.
This ignorance will come back to haunt them once they experience the negative socio-economic implications of resettling refugees in PNG.
PNG’s foreign minister Rimbink Pato said he will settle only skilled people and not all asylum seekers as agreed with Australia initially.
He says once his committee screens the documents, they will select only those people they consider vital to nation building.
PNG will reject the unskilled and people with skills that are not required. An Iranian nuclear physicist might not be needed. Manufacturing of nuclear arsenals and production of nuclear energy is not of interest to PNG.
So what is the future of unskilled asylum seekers or those whose skills are irrelevant to PNG? Will they become permanent residents of the Manus centre making use of free internet and food courtesy of Australian taxpayers?
Will Australia continue take them under her wing like a Good Samaritan? Will New Zealand welcome them?
Whatever the outcome, it looks like these human beings will be kicked around like a football.
The Manus detention centre is, above all, a deterrence strategy conjured up by Australia in adherence to its national interest. It is thought (hoped?) that the idea of coming to a developing country like PNG with increasing infant mortality, poor maternal mortality, high unemployment and other poor economic indicators will deter asylum seekers from heading to Australia.
Australia’s communications minister Malcolm Turnbull in an interview on BBC Hard Talk stated that, once people hear they will be resettled in PNG, they will think twice about jumping on a boat and sailing to Australia.
His remarks are in a way insulting to Papua New Guineans. The image projected on one’s mind is of a poverty stricken island state that is occupied by people who cannot run their own affairs.
The death of Iranian asylum seeker Reza Berati is a good narrative for Australia that may further deter asylum seekers from risking their lives. Turnbull’s comments played a pivotal role in disseminating that information around the world.
The report of the Reza inquiry on various electronic media outlets also has the power to deter. The irrational action taken by a Salvation Army worker and other individuals connected to the death of Reza Berati, reinforces Australia’s strategy. As people read about what happen to Reza Berati they may think twice before making the decision to seek asylum in Australia.
The process of picking and choosing who will settle and who will not sounds familiar. In 1975, at independence, PNG adopted the foreign policy approach of ‘friend to all and enemy to none’. This policy was aimed at introducing the newly independent nation to the rest of the world.
After a 1982 review, PNG came up with a foreign policy of ‘active and selective engagement’. As PNG matured, the nation decided it was time to stop being friendly with everyone. The time was right for PNG to pick and choose who to make friends with.
PNG started to apply rational thinking, selecting and developing its relations with countries which, according to the decision makers at that time, could offer what PNG wanted.
The idea behind this foreign policy approach was similar to Minister Pato’s rhetoric.
PNG will be selective in who settles here. The people selected will possess skills PNG needs to develop the country and work meaningfully with the people of this nation.
Indirectly the minister is saying those people who are unskilled or possess unneeded skills are a burden. PNG is not a welfare state like Australia. How will these people feed and clothe themselves if they do not own land? Who will cater for their needs and wants once they are pronounced as legitimate refugees?
The unemployed people now in urban centres who cannot find a job in the formal sector because they lack necessary skills make ends meet in the informal sector by selling orange juice, betel nut, cigarettes and buttered buns for a living.
The government does not support them in any way but taxes them heavily for the goods they buy for resale.
Life as an unskilled and uneducated person in PNG is tough especially in urban areas. The same can be said for skilled people. The outrageous price of real estate is forcing public servants, some of whom are highly skilled but living on a meagre income, to live in squatter settlements.
A large number of the refugees will end up in urban areas. Refugees from Iran or Syria living alongside other ethnic groups in places like Morauta or the 5 Mile settlement in Port Moresby will be a new experience.
How will Iranians, Iraqis, Syrians, Afghans, Sri Lankans and others fit into our society? Will they be respected and given their privacy? How will they interact with individuals from different indigenous ethnic groups? How will they handle racial discrimination? Will they feel free to move around and engage in economic activities?
In a self-proclaimed Christian nation like PNG, what kind of treatment will refugees who are non-Christians get? Most asylum seekers come from nations where a large proportion of their population practices Islam. Once they settle, the number of Muslims in PNG will increase.
Papua New Guineans are known for their gullibility. The radical teachings of a Christian leader can move believers to form opinions which may be detrimental to peace among different religious sects. The possibility of experiencing religious discrimination and segregation may lead to the creation of Christian and Muslim militant groups.
PNG needs more doctors and nurses at the moment. If asylum seekers with such qualifications and skills enter our shores it will make a difference. They can register with the medical board and start plying their trade.
The government will need to amend the labour laws to open jobs once reserved for nationals to people with refugee status.
The anti-Asian riots of 2008 demonstrated what Papua New Guineans can do if they are economically marginalised or treated badly in their own country. Such riots could occur against refugees in the ‘Land of the Unexpected’.
Every course of action has merits and demerits. But it seems Australia’s leaders have overestimated their own capabilities and underestimated the socio-economic implications of their Pacific plan.
Australia has the resources to curb the problem of asylum seekers and people smuggling. They have a sophisticated and well-equipped navy, customs, intelligence service and so on. They have injected more money into improving conditions in Manus.
The question of where refugees will settle is a continuing concern for the Australian government. Will they live in settlements or suburbs? Will the Australian government build a separate housing estate for them?
Religious fundamentalism is a possible threat. Most of the refugees come from countries which are predominantly Muslim. Settling in a Christian country like PNG will lead to tensions between the Christian majority and the Muslim minority.
Refugees occupying jobs which are reserved for nationals might lead to tensions between refugees and disadvantaged Papua New Guineans. The feeling of being marginalised in their own country might cause Papua New Guineans to treat the refugees with disdain.
The challenge now is for both parties - Australian government and PNG government - to think seriously about the socio-economic implications of the resettlement plan before settling the first batch of refugees in PNG.