by Byron Clark, Fightback
Refugees are beginning to arrive in Manus Island, Papua New Guinea (PNG) after Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and his PNG counterpart, Peter O’Neill, agreed to expand asylum-seeker processing. The new arrangement, called the Regional Resettlement Arrangement (RRA), was secured when Australia offered an unspecified amount of aid for roads, naval bases and universities. It goes further than the “Pacific Solution Mark II” introduced by former Prime Minister Julia Gillard last year, in that refugees who have already arrived in Australia can be sent to PNG for processing.
Rudd has stated that all genuine refugees will be resettled in PNG, though recently O’Neill has contradicted him, saying some will be resettled in Australia. O’Neill told media that PNG would work with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to engage with other countries willing to take part in resettlement. ”That includes Australia, New Zealand and all the other countries who are signatories to the UN conventions on refugees,’
PNG is in much worse shape than Australia to resettle refugees, current facilities can only house around 300 people, yet 3,500 asylum seekers have been arriving in Australia each month this year, even a dramatic slowdown would still result in an unmanageable amount of asylum seekers (at least, an amount impossible to manage humanely). While Australia is expected to spend $600 million upgrading facilities on Manus Island, PNG as a whole is in a weak position to resettle people.
Over 50% of the population live under $2 a day, 61% of them without access to clean water. The country is 156th in the UN’s human development index- compared to Australia, which is second. There is widespread opposition to the policy in PNG resting on two main themes; the lack of development of PNG and its lack of sovereignty in its neo-colonial relationship with Australia.
This sentiment could turn into a misplaced hostility against refugees, the governor of Oro province, Gary Zuffa, told ABC Sydney that the decision to settle refugees in Papua New Guinea could be very divisive, and former opposition leader Dame Carol Kidu has noted that the country already has many displaced people. While a PNG immigration department plan to direct resettled asylum seekers into available jobs is admirable, it could be met with resentment from poorer Papua New Guinean’s.
Concern has also been raised about the possible treatment of gay asylum seekers fleeing persecution; homosexuality is illegal in PNG and carries a penalty of fourteen years in prison.
Neighbouring Solomon Islands did not want to be part of the plan, “We have to respect the choice of asylum seekers, and the choices that these people have made is that they want to come to Australia.” President Gordon Lilo told Radio Australia’s Pacific Beat.
There is currently a legal challenge on behalf of one of the asylum seekers at Manus Island, an Iranian man who can currently only be identified as as S156 of 2013, the High Court number given to him when proceedings commenced. He is challenging the declaration of PNG as a suitable offshore processing country, and claiming his removal from Australia was invalid.
The Australian government is continuing with transfers and expects to prevail in court, despite a High Court decision that struck down Julia Gillard’s Malaysia Solution in 2011, saying that a “third country” must be able to guarantee certain freedoms and rights, which PNG cannot do. A separate legal challenge is being mounted in PNG by the main opposition party.
Rallies against the PNG solution have been held in several Australian cities.