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‘No way’: PNG reaction to the boat people plan

CATHERINE WILSON | Crikey.com

AUSTRALIA’S DECISION TO PERMANENTLY resettle refugees in Papua New Guinea has been met with shock by many locals, quickly followed by anger and a sense of betrayal.

Under Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s plan the developing Pacific island state will resettle an unlimited number of Australia’s asylum seekers who arrive by boat, if they are found to be refugees. In return, PNG will receive extra aid from Australia for hospitals and universities.

A day after Rudd’s announcement, made on Friday, many in PNG were still unaware of the pact. Silence reigned in the mainstream press, which had clearly not been briefed on the development, while social media comments pointed to a lack of consultation in the country.

“[PNG Prime Minister Peter] O’Neill and Rudd have betrayed the people of PNG doing cunning deals behind closed doors. How can the PNG Prime Minister not discuss or debate this in Parliament before putting pen to paper?,’ was one comment on the social media site PNG Attitude on Sunday.

Margaret Loko, an experienced Port Moresby-based election campaigner and former first secretary under Dame Carol Kidu, told Crikey: “No way. We have immense problems of unemployment and law and order. Women and children here suffer from very high levels of gender-based and sexual violence.

“The government has to deal with these issues in our country. It cannot take on the job of solving Australia’s problems. We don’t want to end up with more problems than what we are coping with now.”

PNG is rated 156 out of 187 countries for human development by the United Nations Development Programme, while an estimated 15% of the population have formal sector employment and access to adequate public services. 

Information was not available over the weekend about how the costs of the deal would be met and which country would foot the bills. But questions are being asked about whether this arrangement serves PNG’s interests in any way, and whether full government consultation has occurred.

Another PNG blogger, Paul Yabob, said:

“This bilateral agreement between Peter O’Neill and Kevin Rudd to help Rudd with his re-election unfortunately is an act of heartless selfishness by two politicians. It has nothing to do with humanity or proper rules by which civilised nations and peoples of the world live and relate to each other and resolve difficult issues.”

Loko is not the only one concerned about the role of Australian aid in such deals. Since 2001 Australian Official Development Assistance (ODA) to PNG has totalled more than $4.6 billion with a budget estimate high of $507.2 million in 2013-14. Dr Ray Anere of the National Research Institute in Port Moresby commented to Crikey: “Financial aid and Australian assistance in some service delivery areas are no doubt key factors in the deal. There is no doubt about that in light of the PNG government’s push for greater service delivery in the district and rural areas …

“The challenges are numerous, including PNG’s ability to observe the basic human rights of the asylum seekers by providing proper medical, accommodation and other basic services. The issue of whether PNG has a legal framework and a policy on asylum seekers in place to deal with asylum seekers, especially policy and administrative mechanisms and processes, will be a key challenge in my view.”

The true motivations of Australian politicians in scenarios such as this remain questionable to many Papua New Guineans.

Concerns about the fate of those who will be resettled under this deal is not an indictment of PNG, where the average citizen will go out of his or her way to help another human being in need, whether friend or stranger. But the reality of the nation’s serious domestic challenges should be an integral consideration in Australia’s responsibility to ensure the welfare of the vulnerable and the displaced who have come to its shores.

PNG has acceded to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and its 1967 protocols, but with reservations regarding the rights of refugees to basic services, such as employment, housing and education. It is difficult to see how, in a country where more than 80% depend on the informal economy, these newcomers will find access to adequate employment or means of financial support.

Female asylum seekers will find themselves in a society grappling with very high levels of gender and sexual violence, with inadequate law enforcement. Last year the World Bank reported that violence victimisation rates in PNG were among the highest in the world and violent crimes were on the increase. 

This is the reality of life for many Papua New Guineans. And with inequality and hardship being a key factor in the prevalence of crime, asylum seekers will find themselves in an atmosphere of heightened competition and aggravated local grievances about access to basic means of survival.

Comments

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Leonard Roka

So the poor PNG boss goes into hell to secure more funding for his country. Heavy extraction industries, example LNG. Where is the money the media reports every day?

PNG breast feeds on Australia so why worry, help her address her problems and she gives you more money to feed your budget and give more aid to Solomons.

To hell with you, Waigani.

Warren Dutton

Successive PNG governments have neglected to properly look after the thousands of West Papuan (brothers?) refugees who were accepted in the 1980s (and their thousands of children who have been born here).

The Rudd/O'Neill agreement is merely a gamble that the thought of having to live in Papua New Guinea will be more terrifying to would be refugees than the fear of persecution from which they have fled.

That any PNG PM thinks so badly of his people and his country is unbelievable! That PM Rudd thinks of anyone else other than himself, is unbelievable!

If their gamble proves to be wrong, then the refugees, who are forcibly resettled in PNG, and their PNG "hosts" will all suffer unnecessarily.

In 1985 the Wingti Government reversed the previous Somare's government's policy of sending West Papua refugees straight back into the hands of Kopasus, and acceded (with some unnecessary reservations) to the UN Convention on Refugees, it did so after due process and consideration, because it thought it was the right thing to do, even though the Australian advice was probably, "don't upset the Indonesians!"

(As far as I knew at the time, there was no indication that they were in any way upset.)

The Indonesian government recently made a considered and sensible policy decision in respect of Iranian visitors to their country.

Their maturity contrasts most favourably with the egocentric collusion of the Australian and PNG Prime Ministers.

The right to seek asylum is a Human Right.

But equally accept that the first responsibility of any government, and of PNG in particular, is to its own citizens.

A large proportion of PNG citizens may in fact live in similar fear of persecution to those genuine refugees whom Australia and PNG have agreed to resettle in PNG.

Many more still, live in greater poverty than the refugees have left behind in their home countries.

No amount of bribe money from Australia can possibly overcome the damage that will be caused to both PNG's society and economy, by PNG accepting an impossible responsibility and burden.

David Kitchnoge

Finally a voice of reason. Thanks Catherine!

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