Prime minister Kevin Rudd’s announcement of the “PNG solution” — where refugees who arrive in Australia by boat will be denied resettlement and sent to Papua New Guinea — has sparked the largest refugee rights rallies in Australia since John Howard was in power, as well as opposition from within PNG itself.
On August 2, 2000 students at the University of Papua New Guinea (UPNG) held a protest against the proposed plan.
Police prevented the protest from marching to the Australian High Commission as planned. Peter Numu, president of UPNG’s student council, told local radio: “We are targeting the Australian high commission by way of protest, [and informing] the PNG government as well that the university students, the intellectuals of this nation, through proper analysis and research, are of the view that [the deal] is not in the best interests of the nation.”
Banners at the rally showed the students recognise the policy as the domestic political football that it is, one reading “All about Aussie Labor Party’s greed popularity. Why my country?”
Another banner expressed sovereignty, saying “Captain James Cook displaced Aborigines in Australia! O’Neill-Rudd can’t displace Melanesians in PNG.” At the rally, Numu said: “We are not a dumping ground. Respect our sovereignty at all times”.
The UPNG rally was endorsed by PNG’s University of Technology student representative council president Livingstone Hosea, who pointed out PNG’s own problems prevent the country from being able to help others.
He said: “Our own problems are never solved and how can we solve the problem of another man who is trying to come into our country? Where are our roads fixed? How many of our people are educated? According to the United Nations record of our HDI, we are 0.446 and we are categorised least developed.”
These statements reveal the widespread opposition to Rudd’s plan that exists in PNG. This opposition rests on two main themes — the lack of development of PNG and its lack of sovereignty in its neo-colonial relationship with Australia. These two themes are linked — neo-colonialism prevents development of PNG.
Australian journalist Antony Loewenstein wrote in the Guardian: “The problem has never been that Australia gives too much aid; it’s that we’re throwing huge amounts of money to avoid a failed state on our doorstep by backing rapacious mining interests and overpaid consultants.”
Loewenstein’s new book, “Profits of Doom: how vulture capitalism is swallowing the world” details the power of foreign — particularly Australian — mining and other industrial interests in PNG coupled with the corruption of the government. Corporations that have constructed alliances with the PNG political elite brush aside the people’s needs and the environment.
PNG was once under the administration of the Australian government. Since PNG’s independence in 1975, Australia has given the country large amounts of aid, currently more than $500 million a year. But this actually inhibits the development of PNG.
John Chitoa, program manager of Bismarck Ramu Group — an NGO dedicated to protecting indigenous land and resources — echoes the sentiments of many in PNG and calls for Australian aid to be stopped.
He told Green Left Weekly: “There’s been a lot of aid to PNG for schools and hospitals and it just boomerangs to Australia ... We don’t think this aid will do anything based on our past experience. It goes to Australian companies and contractors who are paid to do the work.”
This arrangement is common with aid around the world — rich nations promise aid but with strings attached, delivering the money into the hands of their own private industries.
As Loewenstein elaborates in his book, much of the aid money in PNG goes to supporting the mining and petroleum industries — which are dominated by foreign corporations — at the expense of agriculture, despite the fact that over 75% of PNG people rely on agricultural exports for their livelihood. This skewed development model locks in and reinforces the exploitation of PNG’s rich resources with little or no benefit to the ordinary people.
“It’s another form of disaster capitalism”, Loewenstein writes, comparing PNG to Haiti and Afghanistan in the way that corporations prey upon aid payments and prevent a nation from exercising independence.
The refugee deal is then seen by many in PNG as an extension of Australian dominance over PNG. Martyn Namorong, a PNG journalist and blogger, told ABC Radio: “The perception is here’s this guy [Kevin Rudd], you know, pretty much a neo-colonialist, coming to impose Australia’s foreign policy on Papua New Guinea.”
This situation can explain why such a resource-rich nation receiving huge amounts of aid can be in such a dismal state. UNICEF says PNG’s children are some of the most vulnerable in the world. Domestic violence and sexual assault is rife and the HIV epidemic only makes matters worse, with those affected more likely to drop out of school, be orphaned and stigmatised.
About 40-75% of children experience violence in their homes. Up to 50% of girls are at risk of being involved in sex work, which UNICEF attributes to increasing urbanisation, the expansion of resource sites and introduction of a cash economy. Up to 75% of children in conflict with the law are beaten by police, suffering torture, sexual abuse and extra-judicial shootings.
“The key issue among many people is that we do not have a form of social security system,” said Namorong. Furthermore, 80% of PNG's population is rural and already suffer lack of adequate services.
Namorong said: “When the Australian government and Papua New Guinea government talk about giving tracts of land to people to resettle, so that’s sort of set up issues about land which is very sensitive in Papua New Guinea.” Many indigenous landholders, already in conflict with corporations or the government for control of their land, will only be further enraged by the new refugee policy.
Kristian Lasslett wrote in New Matilda about the town known as ATS, which has been earmarked as a possible place for resettling refugees. The residents there have fought off attempts by Dunlavin Limited and the police to forcefully evict them.
Harold Kaipa, vice president of Oro Socio-Economic Development Association told New Matilda: "This is totally unacceptable … this is totally wrong … They can't come and threaten to displace people, people have invested money, and we have been here since 1995 … they cannot do that. These are working class people residing here! You can see around here permanent houses … this is totally unfair.”
With all of these domestic issues, it is no wonder then that the UNHCR would report that “persons of concern, unlike most expatriates in PNG, cannot afford additional security. Non-Melanesian asylum seekers and refugees in PNG are particularly vulnerable to xenophobia and racism amongst the local population”.