An entry in The Crocodile Prize
PNG Chamber of Mines & Petroleum
Award for Essays & Journalism
PAPUA New Guinea’s squatter settlements are a breeding ground for thugs and prostitutes.
A commonly held presumption, but is it true? Are all settlements dangerous? Are places like Gav Stoa, Morauta and 2 Mile Hill full of rapist, murders, burglars and con artists? Should the government bulldoze them because they are hazardous to modernisation?
Throughout PNG, people paint a negative portrait of squatter settlements. But to prove whether or not they are what many believe one has to witness them firsthand to formulate an honest judgment.
Settlements are a melting pot for an array of cultures, personalities and intellects. You have the Mendi and Sepik blocks in Kundiawa town which host Southern Highlanders and Sepiks.
There is a Simbu settlement at 5 Mile Hill in Port Moresby, there’s the Gav Stoa Sepik settlement in Madang and other settlements in other urban areas are stocked with different ethnic groups.
No too long ago, the death of a university student at the hands of those alleged to be from a Madang settlement sparked a cry from commentators to remove all settlements in PNG. A call perhaps understandable given the emotion of the moment.
It would be a mammoth task to repatriate all the settlers to their place of origin. The government would find it very difficult.
Where does a fifth generation Simbu family living in the notorious Simbu lodge block at Sisiak on the outskirts of Madang go? This group from the Bomai tribe of South Simbu cannot go back to the village because they have no land. They have become city slickers.
Settlers will also refuse to return to their place of origin because of sorcery. People who have been accused of sorcery will be killed when they return. Likewise, those who engage in land disputes will be killed through the use of sorcery when they return.
Then there’s economics. Settlers will not move back to the village because there is no future for them there. No number of bulldozers or ruffian police will force them to return. It is like telling someone to swim against the current of a fast flowing river.
And these people have learned to survive in the urban environment. Even if educated only to Grade 6 these individual are street smart. They know where to collect information, who to talk to, where to sell pirated DVDs, where to sell betel nut, who is a newbie in the settlement, who is a sugar daddy, who is a drunk and so on.
They may lack the necessary knowledge needed to survive in the formal system but they have gained the ability to survive in a country that is rapidly changing. The narratives emerging from the betel nut ban in Port Moresby, telling how vendors have managed to smuggle in buai to meet their customers’ needs, displays their ingenuity.
Squatter settlers are sometimes called internal refugees. An echo of their friends on Manus Island who are external refugees. These are people who have a reason to pursue a better life in a different environment. They seek their right to a good life and their right to be free.
Internal refugees are not people employed in the formal sector who reside in the settlements. These people are forced to the settlements by the hefty price of real estate. Those who live on a meagre salary and not entitled to institutional housing end up renting cheap accommodation in the settlements.
This understanding of squatter settlements around PNG provides a background to help determine where asylum seekers on Manus Island will live once they are processed and given refugee status.
The governments of Australia and PNG, apart from rhetorical media statements, have yet to tell Australian taxpayers and concerned PNG citizens where they plan to settle the refugees.
The refugees cannot settle in established squatter settlements because there will be great upset to the social balance: the understandings and networks developed over many years. Settlers know the rules; but because the rules are not written they are difficult for others to learn.
If a well-known drunk who loves verbally lashing innocent bystanders comes into contact with an external refugee it may be a recipe for disaster. Someone with knowledge of this person will ignore him and disregard his verbal lashings.
Settlement fights are like tribal fights. If a person from a particular ethnic group bashes someone from another ethnic group, the entire ethnic group will come to the rescue irrespective of the rationale behind the fight. The plan is to fight first and ask questions later. This mob mentality is not an unusual human trait.
Apart from squatter settlements, where else will the refugees reside? Will Australia spend taxpayers money to build a housing estate for them? Will Australia, with the help of the PNG government, buy a suburb like Gerehu and give it to a particular ethnic group like the Afghans? Or Tokarara for the Iranians?
One possible plan is for the Australian government to partner the PNG government to identify state land for housing projects. Then five or six story buildings in different parts of the country can house different ethnic groups.
Another possible project could be an international village of 20 to 30 houses on state land or land leased from incorporated land groups.
Refugees will live in the projects for a couple of years until they find a job or start a business and move elsewhere. PNG is actually a very safe country if you live here long enough to understand how things work.
The determination of most refugees to succeed in a new country is commendable. The Australian documentary series ‘Go Back to Where You Come From’ showed how different refugees set up businesses and established networks creating opportunities for new refugees from the same ethnic group.
Australia has to work in unison with the PNG government to create employment opportunities for refugees. Addressing their needs will also create more employment for Papua New Guineans.
In the history of urbanisation and nation building, immigrants and refugees have played a fundamental role. PNG is on the verge of a major social-economic transformation which could alter its DNA.
It is paramount that both Australia and PNG work hand-in-hand to find a win-win solution to this issue and not a solution in the favour of Australia.
This form of state cooperation, with the aim of addressing this international humanitarian crisis, will continue the world turns into a global village.