Prime minister Kevin Rudd’s plan to resettle asylum seekers in Papua New Guinea is already being compared to John Howard’s hard line on the Tampa, which won Howard the election in 2001. It might be good politics in an election year, but it is unlikely to be good policy in the longer term.
The majority of asylum seekers picked up by the Tampa and shipped to Nauru were later granted refugee status and resettled in Australia or New Zealand. So what can asylum seekers shipped to and processed and eventually resettled in PNG expect?
The Australian media gives us little information on our closest neighbour, except to report sensationalist stories of cannibals - such as former Today Tonight host Naomi Robson’s attempt to rescue six year-old Wawa from being eaten by his own tribe - and corruption.
Recently, PNG has seen a spate of horrendous attacks on women accused of being “witches” that have captured the Australian media’s attention. PNG is also variously described as a “failed” or “fragile” state and tourists are warned to exercise a “high degree of caution” because of the staggeringly high rate of serious crime, including sexual assault, perpetrated against locals and foreigners alike.
And into such a fraught and fragile environment, Australia is now poised to send the world’s most fragile people – refugees.
Those trying to settle into a new life in PNG will probably come from Sri Lanka, Iran or another Middle Eastern country. Some will be Muslim: PNG, like Australia, is a predominately Christian country. Most won’t speak English as their first language, nor will they speak one of the more than 800 local languages spoken in PNG. They will need to find somewhere to live, get a job and send their kids to school.
So where, exactly, will they be resettled? Almost all land in PNG (up to 97%) is owned by family or kinship groups – known as clans or tribes – not by the government. There is a saying in PNG – “land is life” – and, like Indigenous Australians, there is a strong spiritual and cultural connection to land. There is also a strong practical connection to land – the majority of Papua New Guineans are subsistence farmers and depend on land for their food and shelter.
Customary land cannot be “sold”, and although there are some mechanisms for land to be leased, this is a lengthy and cumbersome process which, if not done properly, can lead to serious conflict. In 2011, I travelled to a picturesque coastal village in Madang province that stood in the shadow of a volcanic island that still billowed smoke from its most recent eruption. Around a thousand villagers from the island had been resettled on the mainland by the PNG government after their previously fertile land was swallowed by a carpet of lava and ash.
Problem was, there is no vacant land for refugees to be resettled, so they were essentially resettled on someone else’s land. Tensions between the customary landowners and refugees quickly erupted into violence. By the time I was there, tensions had died down enough for the women and children that had been sent in to the mountains for their safety to return. After being closed for two years due to the fighting, the local primary school was finally able to re-open and start holding classes again.
So, perhaps it will be better to settle refugees in urban areas, close to jobs and services. But urban areas are already overcrowded for the exact same reasons – it is extremely difficult to negotiate land for towns and cities to expand. Already people from rural areas who come to the capital, Port Moresby, looking for work often end up building houses on stilts over the ocean because there is no land for them to build a house on.
In PNG, stilt houses don’t have electricity or running water and are plagued by gangs of “raskols” at night. The rental market is virtually non-existent, and those houses that are for rent are quickly snapped up by the flood of overseas, fly-in, fly-out workers or highly paid consultants taking advantage of PNG’s own mining boom. Rental prices have skyrocketed in Port Moresby recently, leaving even relatively well-paid Papua New Guineans struggling to live close to jobs and services.
Some refugees will come with valuable skills and experience as doctors, lawyers or engineers. But even skilled, experienced Papua New Guineans can’t find jobs, and most university graduates cannot find employment. PNG has a tiny formal economy – meaning that there are not that many formal, paid jobs such as being an accountant, hairdresser or bus driver.
If you are a subsistence farmer, as the majority of people in PNG are, you probably don’t pay a hairdresser to cut your hair and you don’t need an accountant at tax time. Government jobs are highly sought after and probably offer the best hope for stable, paid employment, but whether the PNG government will offer refugees these highly-prized government jobs at the expense of Papua New Guineans is a big if.
However, maybe the Australian government will provide refugees (and their children) with welfare payments for the rest of their lives. Despite the benefits that employment provides in terms of a sense of purpose and building links within the community, welfare payments would have to be higher than those in Australia to provide the same standard of living. PNG might be a developing country but that doesn’t mean it is cheap to live there. In a country where most people grow their own food and make do with what they can, store-bought food and other goods have to be imported and are horrendously expensive.
There are also a number of extras that a house in Port Moresby needs. If you are an Australian diplomat living in Port Moresby, you live in a gated compound with 24-hour security, high walls and barbed wire, while if you are an Australian working for a mining company in PNG you are not allowed to catch public buses or taxis. You can’t even travel to the campus of PNG’s main university at night in your own 4WD with a trained local driver: you need a convoy of vehicles carrying security guards to accompany you. This is the minimum level of personal security provided to Australians sent to work in PNG, but will it be the same level provided to refugees sent to live in PNG?
Can we really expect Papua New Guineans to offer shelter and protection to the world’s most vulnerable people? What kind of neighbour are we if we expect a country that we describe as “fragile” to suddenly find the room to give refugees a house, a job, and a school for their kids to go to - when we are worried about the impact that doing these same things here will have on our own country? Be under no illusion, resettling refugees in PNG is an unworkable and ungracious policy.