For Those Who’ve Come Across The Seas: A Short Trip To PNG
By Jo ChandlerJuly 24, 2013
Papua New Guinea lacks a basic social safety net for its own citizens, let alone for the traumatised refugees about to be loaded on it by Australia. In the fragile country, the potentially sweet political deal has triggered anxiety, shame and bewilderment.
Father John Glynn is the kind of clergyman you don’t hear so much about these days. Wiry, white-bearded, venerable (albeit a bit wacky), he’s the Irish priest central casting might have delivered in a more innocent age.
Glynn has devoted 40-something years of service – to his mind, infinitely more useful than sermonising – to his parishes in Papua New Guinea. He speaks a smattering of PNG’s 800 tongues, but likely all with a lilting brogue. He also retains an Irishman’s gift for upsetting elites, religious and secular, and consequently has spent much of his working life banished to far-flung island outposts. He couldn’t have been happier.
But like thousands of Papua New Guineans who out of choice or necessity have been uprooted from their villages, Glynn dwells these days in the badlands of the Port Moresby settlements, home to almost half of the city’s burgeoning 400,000-plus population.
Some came looking for jobs or schooling, to access medical care or support family. Many are internally displaced, forced from their homes by some upheaval – tribal fighting, land disputes, family violence, poor crop yields, wild weather, monster tides, mining or forestry.
Some find homes in so-called “planned” settlements, but most are forced into sprawling tenements of squats ingeniously scavenged from whatever materials come to hand, ‘the result of uncontrolled migration and population growth and the government’s failure to provide affordable housing’, observed a 2010 UN Habitat report.
Many neighbourhoods lack reliable power, clean water or sewage systems and all endure high crime rates and violence, much of it bubbling up from tribal tensions, boredom, booze and drugs. Glynn has been carjacked more than once by roiling teenage raskols waving homemade guns. Then there’s the overloaded public transport (small people-mover buses), broken roads, crowded classrooms and spiralling disease rates (the drug-resistant tuberculosis emergency is shaping up as one of the worst in the world) compounded by a woeful health system.
Glynn’s flock includes qualified, employed people whose pay doesn’t come close to the sky-high rents demanded for proper houses or apartments in town; starting price is 2,500 kina a week, thanks to short supply and heavy demand from ex-patriates and resources-bonanza fly-ins. A recent report on the rental crisis in Stella magazine quoted room rates in the settlements at K80 per week – wiping out the full-time earnings of workers on the minimum wage of K2.60 per hour.
It’s a critical issue for Stella’s target readership – the emerging demographic of young, educated women with office jobs, career ambitions and extended-family obligations. “It’s not uncommon for people to live 15 to a house with one bathroom,” says editor and publisher Amanda Donigi. She and Glynn champion very different constituencies, but they are all mired in the same sadly served melting pot.
Most people living in the settlements don’t have jobs and struggle by on what they can earn in the “informal sector” – selling buai (betelnut), cigarettes, phone credit and repairs, soft drinks, sweets, produce from their gardens (if they have access to land). Some women and girls sell sex when they must. Publisher and priest alike encourage other aspirations.
Orphaned and neglected children who would once have been cared for by their extended families today slip through the clan networks on which PNG society historically relied because their ‘wantoks’ are so worn-down, overburdened and dislocated. They risk becoming easy pickings for predators and reinforcements to the angry ranks of raskol gangs. So Glynn organises networks of volunteers from within the settlement community – men and women with the will, but few resources – to locate the children, feed them, get them into school and to the health centre. In 2012, his homegrown agency, WeCare, provided help to 500 children and carers.
One day last year the priest followed a tip-off to a little hut hidden in the slums and secured with a heavy lock. He broke in and found, on the floor in the dark, a profoundly disabled young woman wallowing in her own muck. When he confronted them, Joyce’s parents told him they locked her up each day – had done for years – while they went to the market to try to scrounge an existence. Soon after, Glynn came across another, similar case, eight-year-old Maria, lying alone all day on the floor of her mother’s single room. WeCare is now engaged with both girls, and about 20 others who are similarly disabled, providing physical care, respite and wheelchairs.
When I was last in Port Moresby, in December, I cooked Glynn some dinner and we sat out in the choking smog of evening and chatted. His default setting is Gaelic “get-on-with-it”, but this night he seemed depleted by the Joyces and Marias. Sometimes, he said, “it is difficult to keep going”. I’d contacted him in part because I heard tell that two young boys – one 10, the other 14 – were locked in the cells at notorious Boroko police station. I was relieved to pass the burden of knowledge on to this tired old man, confident he’d fix it. Dinner was the least I owed him.
Last Friday night Glynn was putting the final touches to the folksy monthly newsletter he sends out to his supporters, many of them his own Irish ‘wantoks’, updating them on WeCare’s work. It’s always a raw, heartfelt dispatch, sometimes confronting, sometimes uplifting. This time it nudged toward the latter (he was not long back from a holiday in his Old Country).
But then he saw a news flash reporting a deal between Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and his PNG counterpart Peter O’Neill. Henceforth Australia would not not accommodate any asylum seeker who attempted to arrive in Australia via sea without a visa. Those whose bona fides are accepted would instead make their new life in PNG.
Glynn’s reaction, sitting deep in the epicentre of PNG’s need, was bewilderment. His concern in that moment was deeply, unapologetically parochial. He launched his newsletter into the ether with his own question. “How can we accommodate settlers in PNG when we cannot accommodate our own people? Housing, education, healthcare, jobs!” He could, he said, only hope that Mr O’Neill had secured many favours in return, and that some of them might find their way into his neighborhood.
DOWNTOWN AT PORT MORESBY’S Holiday Inn that same Friday afternoon, a packed assembly of Papua New Guinea’s thinkers, movers, shakers and activists were caught up in a lively forum familiar to Australia’s chattering classes – a panel discussion modeled on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s popular domestic program Q&A, this one made for local television and underwritten by Canberra’s AusAID development program.
The topic (presciently): “Government accountability: what information should be shared by the government, and how should it be communicated?” At 4.30pm the debate wrapped up and the gathering mooched into weekend mode – maski wari (‘don’t worry!’). The canapés were being swooped on when tweets start lobbing in from the Brisbane press conference where the Australian and PNG leaders had just dropped their bomb.
While Australia’s commentariat frenziedly dissected what it all meant on its side of Torres Strait politically, morally and legally, the Holiday Inn crowd begin wrestling with how it might play out socially and practically in PNG, questions that would dominate rambunctious local political chat sites throughout the weekend.
Emmanuel Narokobi, one of the Q&A panelists at the Holiday Inn, is a leading PNG blogger (The Masalai Blog) and communications specialist. I tracked him down from Melbourne to get a summary of what he’d been seeing and hearing in Port Moresby. “Everyone is obviously shocked at how quickly the decision was made and how far-reaching the ramifications will be to our way of life in PNG,” he said.
There’s been anger from those who reckon PNG has rolled over for its old colonial master. On Sharp Talk, the dominant political Facebook forum with more than 12,700 members, this sort of sentiment is typical: “Peter O’Neill needs to resign. He sold out, with disregard to the sovereignty and interests of Papua New Guineans when he signed the asylum deal with Kevin Rudd.” On the streets the Sunday Chronicle newspaper ran the story under the banner headline – “Ruddiculous!” The PM’s supporters counter that O’Neill has been clever, exploiting Rudd’s political desperation to PNG’s advantage.
After that, the dynamics of the discussion start to look all-too-familiar to Australians, from the earnest concerns of the intelligentsia over legal process, international obligation and ethnic cohesion, down to the unvarnished racist hate rants at the other extreme. In between lots of ordinary folk – increasingly engaging in the virtual village thanks to cheap Facebook-primed handsets – post their two-toea’s worth about whether ‘these people’ will be competing for scarce medical resources, seats on the morning bus, access to crowded schoolrooms, accommodation rentals or, down the track, jobs. Some are fearful that refugees, denied their Australian dream, will project their anger onto PNG.
Prime Minister O’Neill was beneficent in his brief appearance alongside Kevin Rudd, telling the Australian and world media that PNG is “blessed with a large land mass and a very small population”. But that population is exploding, and much of PNG’s country is dense, mountainous, inaccessible rainforest and swampland – about as habitable to new arrivals as the Australian interior, albeit lusher. It is also spoken for, and sought after.
PNG used to boast that 97 per cent of its territory was held under customary ownership, but in the past decade that has been dramatically eroded, with between 5.5 and 5.6 million hectares – about 12 per cent of its land mass – having been transferred from customary owners to a range of foreign, national and landowner companies, often for 99 years, and then subleased to developers promising roads and agricultural projects in return for access to forests or other resources. Widespread concerns ahead of the last national election that most of the deals were dodgy led to a Commission of Inquiry which has yet to submit a final report on its findings to the PNG Parliament.
More than 80 per cent of the nation’s 7 million people live in rural and remote communities, many are farmers, fishers and hunters; some of them are today also entitled to royalties or benefits flowing from mining or forestry. Regardless, their cultural claim to their land is their security. Sharing it with outsiders is a deeply fraught exercise, as many a scarred resources speculator will attest.
PNG is also overwhelmingly, vehemently Christian, and the prospect of settlers from the Middle East has ignited substantial anti-Muslim sentiment juxtaposed against expressions of Christian duty.
Gary Juffa, a respected politician, posts an entreaty as the Sharp Talk gets sharper: “If we do get genuine refugees, I guess we should make them welcome and help them build a better life … we have always welcomed visitors with open arms, genuine, non-genuine, criminal and mercenary, so no difference really.”
The punt Prime Minister O’Neill has taken is that the benefits of the deal will ultimately outweigh any perceptions that it has been brokered at the expense of PNG citizens, says Paul Barker, head of PNG’s Institute of National Affairs think tank. The biggest risk O’Neill faces is “a public backlash at the idea of large numbers of non-Christian settlers arriving and taking local jobs, businesses, houses and land. As in Australia, this is more about emotion than actual outcomes.”
In reality, if O’Neill’s bet doesn’t work out and a substantial number of refugees are settled in PNG, it’s the Australian Government that will foot the bill, says Barker. “Many educated Papua New Guineans will object to PNG being dumped with Australia’s problem. Others will recognise that PNG has obligations of its own and so long as there are no real costs to PNG [the deal] shouldn’t be so problematic.”
But the refugee deal has triggered a lot of anxiety, Emmanuel Narokobi says, around the capability of “an inefficient Government that still does not know how to provide basic services to its own people – schools and hospitals … Did our Government even attempt to conduct a social impact study of some sort?
“We can see the benefit to Kevin Rudd and his party; we can see the benefit to the PNG Government; we can see the benefit to all the AusAID agencies and contractors that will be involved. But as Papua New Guinea citizens, what do we get out of it?”
On paper, plenty. Australia already directs more than $500 million of aid to PNG. The deal now delivers a windfall of unspecified millions to build a desperately needed replacement major hospital in PNG’s second city, Lae (promised by PNG leaders for more than a decade); reform higher education; and rehabilitate broken-down management cultures in the PNG public sector. Then there’s the hoped-for jobs and infrastructure from the construction of a permanent processing hub on remote Manus Island.
Locals might also glean some advantage from whatever facilities are required to look after new settlers, presumably the responsibility of the Australian Government in perpetuity, even if the deal doesn’t continue beyond its one-year timeframe. PNG after all provides no social security safety net even to its own citizens, which is why Father John Glynn’s volunteers and the interventions and programs of international aid agencies are so critical. There are no state pensions or benefits, no state community support programs, no housing assistance even to the neediest, sickest, most damaged and disabled, many of whom endure circumstances well short of the minimum standards required by international law for refugees.
Prime Minister Peter O’Neill appears to be wagering that if the plan has the desired effect, the boats will quickly stop coming, few refugees will ever have to be settled in PNG and he will have wrangled money for (almost) nothing – a sweet deal, aside from the discomfort of having to mutely encourage the portrayal of his nation as a hellhole which even the planet’s most desperate citizens would seek to avoid.
“That any PNG PM thinks so badly of his people and his country is unbelievable!” erupted Warren Dutton, a former PNG Government minister and political veteran, reflecting the strong thread of humiliation underwriting much of PNG’s internal commentary on the issue.
“I’m appalled that Australia is using negative media to paint a scary image of PNG to deter asylum seekers – almost like our social issues are in Australia’s best interest,” says Amanda Donigi, the publisher, editor and instigator of Stella and widely touted as one of the nation’s savviest young entrepreneurs.
Her preference, she has told me in the past, is to explore social and economic issues that resonate with her young, educated readership but to steer clear of overt engagement with the mire of PNG politics. Yet on Friday night she was riled up and tweeting appeals to PNG’s “thinking women” to take a stand against the deal. Why?
“We are not stupid. We understand that this is a political stunt by the ALP to win votes from white Australia,” she explains. “My concern is that these genuine asylum seekers will be traumatised and PNG does not have the capacity to support them. We have no welfare system, health care is atrocious. This is a human rights violation.”
This is precisely the reaction Bill Standish, a longtime PNG specialist based at the Australian National University, is anticipating from O’Neill’s gamble. “The educated youth of PNG are likely to protest loudly,” he says. “To send Australia’s unwanted arrivals [to PNG] is the ultimate colonialism. PNG people I know are disgusted.”
He also foresees strong legal opposition. A case brought by the PNG Opposition Leader Belden Namah in regard to the existing Manus detention facility failed only on a procedural slip, and is due to return to the courts. “It has a strong foundation, because it is unconstitutional to detain people without charge for a crime in PNG,” says Standish. Prominent political blogger and newly qualified lawyer Deni ToKunai tweeted on Monday that a Constitutional amendment would be required for the PNG Government to detain and settle refugees in PNG.
He followed up with a word of advice: “Australia, you’re beginning to annoy a number of friends in your backyard by dragging us into your domestic political squawking.”
“The idea of resettling hundreds if not thousands of Muslims deemed to be genuine refugees in PNG is also likely to stir up vocal prejudice among PNG's active Christians against this proposal,” says Standish. “I think we should expect demonstrations again in Port Moresby, after what looks like a serious misjudgement from PM O'Neill.”
Emmanuel Narokobi says many of his contemporaries are concerned that ordinary Papua New Guineans will one way or other pay dearly for Kevin Rudd’s PNG solution. They anticipate the costs of food and housing, already hyper-inflated by the resources sector, will be pushed up even further with the arrival of the inevitable corps of expat functionaries with expense accounts required to do the business. They’ve seen it before in PNG when Australian Federal Police were deployed, and in the Solomon Islands with RAMSI (the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands).
“All in all it’s a bold and tough stance that Rudd has taken, and it may very well stop the boats,” he says. “But at what cost to our way of life in PNG, and at what cost to our democracy?”
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