Teresia Teaiwa on refugee rights in the Pacific: “Mana whenua leads to mana tangata”

Teresia Teaiwa is a poet and Pacific Studies academic in Aotearoa / New Zealand. Fightback previously interviewed Teresia here.

Ian Anderson interviews Teresia on recent media coverage of Australia’s offshore detention centres.

You have said that Australian refugee centres in Manus and Nauru are exploiting the desperation of those communities, alongside the widely-reported abuse of refugees. Who benefits from exploitation and abuse in Manus and Nauru?
Well, no one truly benefits from exploitation and abuse ever. Oppressors lose their humanity in the process of dehumanizing others.

But the primary beneficiaries of Australia’s policy of detaining asylum seekers, refugees, and other so-called undesirables offshore are corporations like Transfield Services and Serco. The operation of detention centres in Manus and on Nauru is part of a wider industrial network that links the privatisation of prisons with defence and mining. Companies that have received contracts from the Australian state to manage the detention centres have made millions of dollars in profit—by providing minimal and sub-standard living conditions.

Of course, theoretically, the people of Manus and Nauru are supposed to benefit from the detention centres as well. I remember in the early 2000s that the huge attraction of the detention centre for Nauruans was the promise of a regular fresh water and electricity supply. In both the Manus and Nauru cases, jobs and income are considered direct benefits of the detention centres for locals.

But this is my concern: the detention centres are part of a perverse pattern of negative development. Nauru has already been environmentally decimated by phosphate mining, and to go from an extractive industry to a detention centre is nothing more than a downward spiral. No one can be uplifted by the detention—indeed, the inhumane imprisonment—of others.

In an interview with E-Tangata, you recently warned of the danger of painting a people with just one brush stroke. Is this also the warning you are offering about portrayals of Nauru in recent media coverage?
My problem with the media coverage of Manus and Nauru, especially by the New Zealand and Australian media, is that the interest has been solely driven by the detention centres. Prior to the establishment of Australia’s offshore detention centres in 2001, there was little media interest in Manus or Nauru. Of course, the media industry needs crisis in order to invest resources in investigating and reporting stories. But if we continue to use the brush stroke metaphor, what we’ve got is Manus and Nauru being painted by the media solely as detention centres, and we get very little sense of these places having a life beyond this as a reason for being.

Unfortunately, the well-meaning activism that has emerged in response to the horrific abuses of detainees has also fallen into the trap of painting Manus and Nauru as simply sites. You get placards and slogans that say “Close Nauru” or “Shut Down Manus”—as if that’s all they are—sites that can be maintained or closed down at will. Then there are the slogans that go “Hell exists and it’s on Nauru,” and the constant pairing of “hell” with the images of Manus and Nauru.

Frankly, it’s disturbing to me that human rights activists’ concerns seem to extend only to the detainees and do not seek a larger analysis of the kind of underdevelopment or negative development that makes it necessary for the communities of Manus and Nauru to accept detention centres as a solution to their development challenges.

What would policy/news/activism look like if the well-being of the people of Manus and Nauru was always kept at the centre of considerations? I feel certain that if the welfare of Manusians and Nauruans was put first, there would either be no detention centres, or the detainees would actually be well cared for.

How does your own whakapapa interact with your take on this story?
I whakapapa to Banaba or Ocean Island, which is Nauru’s twin phosphate island. The Nauruans have an oral tradition that Banaba was formed as the result of a traumatic event on Nauru.

I have had relatives and friends who have lived, worked, and married on Nauru, and I was able to visit there twice in the 1990s. I developed a great affection for the island and people from those two visits—I fell in love with the geography, especially the pinnacle formations along the coast, and the Buada Lagoon inland. But what made me realise that Nauru had so much more to offer the world than phosphate was the experience I had of running a family history workshop through the University of the South Pacific’s Nauru Centre in 1997. The Nauruan participants came from a range of ages and experiences, but what they had in common was an incredible wealth of both indigenous and worldly knowledge, a wicked sense of humour, and serious story-telling talent. I’m not sure if any of the writing from that workshop ever got published, but if outsiders could read those stories, they might be able to see how Nauru is more than just a site for Australia’s human refuse.

I have not been to Manus, but I remember when I was on my way to Madang last year, that one of the ground staff at Brisbane airport assumed that I was going to Manus when I presented my paperwork at the check-in desk. I was a bit alarmed by that—just wondering, how much traffic is there from Australia to Manus? I have a friend who has Manus whakapapa, and she was telling me that her father’s people are well-known among Papua New Guineans as peaceful and welcoming. So when the riot broke out at the detention centre there early last year and a local employee and PNG police were implicated in the events and the death of Reza Barati, she felt strongly that the detention centre was a deeply corrosive influence in the community.

As a Pacific person and as a Pacific Studies scholar living and working in Aotearoa New Zealand, I recognise that Papua New Guinea and Nauru are quite peripheral to our very Polynesian-centric sense of the Pacific. But ultimately, the indigenous peoples of the Pacific all do share the same ancestry. And the question becomes whether we care about these fellow human beings who are distant relatives of ours or not?

As you’ve noted about Britain, even imperialist nations can’t be painted with one brush stroke. Australia certainly has its own refugee rights movement, alongside a strong racist current even among the working majority. How much hope do you hold for anti-imperialist movements in countries like Australia and New Zealand?
I’d like to see more connections made between the refugee rights movement, anti-imperialist movements and indigenous rights movements in Australia and New Zealand. As I’ve said, I find it disturbing that movements concerned about refugee rights can be so disinterested in the welfare of Manusians and Nauruans, let alone Aboriginal Australians or Māori.

Unfortunately, human rights discourse these days often falls short of critiquing imperialism. And some of our socialist comrades are pretty quick to buy into one-dimensional representations of Papua New Guineans and Nauruans as primitivist brutes, without trying to nuance their analyses—not trying to understand, for example, what complex social tensions might be at play in the indigenous societies of Manus and Nauru under the circumstances.

It’s important to note, too, that the refugees and asylum seekers have quite fixed ideas about the Pacific Islands in which they find themselves detained. You can’t blame them when they are seeing the islands through the bars and fences of detention centres.

Some are very clear about the kind of life that they are after: they did not risk their lives leaving one “third world” country in order to end up in another “third world” country. But most would much rather not have had to leave their homes in the first place.

Our problem is that we have such gross inequalities across the globe, and too many of the citizens of rich countries just don’t understand how their affluence is actually a result of the impoverishment and endangerment of so many people in other countries.

In the last few days, we’ve seen riots at Australia’s Christmas Island detention centre, and our own Prime Minister John Key describe detainees as “rapists and murderers.” Do you have any comments on this unfolding situation?
From what I understand the Prime Minister was actually incorrect in his categorization of the New Zealanders being detained on Christmas Island. It’s unacceptable for a Prime Minister to be so misinformed and to spread such misinformation.

It’s also supremely ironic that someone who risked his life in military service for New Zealand and received decorations for his efforts and also at one time provided security for the Prime Minister, would find himself detained at Christmas Island as well, once he was no longer deemed a desirable immigrant in Australia.

I hope that those New Zealanders who have only begun to get interested in Australia’s detention policy because they are concerned about the welfare of their fellow citizens are able to then connect the dots to see how the logic behind the detention of asylum seekers and refugees might very easily be used against them one day.

Some of the larger questions here are about who gets to have freedom of movement across national borders, and who gets to have human rights?

Christmas Island also interests me as it is an island that attracted phosphate mining in the twentieth century like Banaba and Nauru. For me, the relentless extraction of our planet’s resources is part of the very phenomenon that produces the refugee and immigration crises we are witnessing today.

Quite simply, if people were able to look after their ancestral lands, and make fully informed choices about the kind of lives they wanted to lead, there’s a good chance we would not be in this situation.

Do you have any comments on New Zealand’s refugee policy?
There’s currently a huge debate in Hawai‘i about whether the state can accommodate refugees from Syria when Kanaka Maoli/Native Hawaiians make up a significant proportion of the state’s homeless population, and Micronesian migrants who are already there are facing animosity from state residents and exclusion from state services.

New Zealand has one of the lowest intakes of refugees per capita among OECD nations. And just like Hawai‘i, questions can be raised about whether New Zealand has any business increasing its refugee quota when its own people aren’t being looked after—for example, the almost 1 in 4 children living in poverty in this country. But whether we’re thinking about 260,000 New Zealand children living in poverty, or whether to raise the quota from 700 to 1200 for refugees desperately looking for safe shelter, what demands our careful attention is how the wealth and resources of this country are distributed.

But as I said earlier in relation to Manus and Nauru, we have to challenge ourselves to think about what policy/news/activism could look like if Māori were at the centre of our consideration. It won’t make things easier, by any means. But it would be a radical improvement on the way decisions are made and actions are being taken or not taken now.

What sort of coalitions are necessary, in your opinion, to undermine Australia’s regime?
If you’re talking about the regime of Australia’s detention centres, there need to be some strategic coalitions around shaping public opinion both in Australia and internationally. One important area of focus should be Australia’s bid to chair the UN Human Rights Council. Australia does not deserve to chair that council, and if human rights NGOs, indigenous rights and anti-imperialist movements can mobilize to get their bid defeated through lobbying among the G77 countries, especially, then I think we will empower Australians to hold their country more accountable for the appalling human rights abuses in the detention centres. If Australia wins their bid, there will be no incentive for the government to make any changes, because becoming chair of the UN Human Rights Council will essentially vindicate the current policy.

What can readers of this article do to challenge Australia’s abuses?
It is truly sad to me that in their first encounter with each other, Somalians and Nauruans, Iranians and Manusians, for example, are not given the chance to truly recognise each other’s dignity. This is because their encounters are being mediated by the Australian state and its contracted proxies.

Readers of this article need to demonstrate their solidarity with and concern for BOTH the refugees and the people of Nauru and Manus. The readers of this article need to put pressure on their governments and elected officials to demand accountability—and more importantly, CHANGE—from the Australian government in relation to the abuses in its offshore detention centres.

Some of the media point out that Nauru has an authoritarian government that is curbing international media access and also tampering with the judiciary and perverting the rule of law. The government of Papua New Guinea is also facing accusations of corruption and poor governance.

I hope that readers of this article will think critically about a) how Australia’s detention centre policy is exploiting the weaknesses of the governments in Nauru and PNG; b) how successive Australian governments are continuing to foster the negative development of these countries—replicating Australia’s colonial history in both countries; and c) how some New Zealanders are actually in the same detention centres as refugees; d) how Aboriginal Australians and Māori might have or make common cause with the people of Nauru and Manus, and e) how those of us who are not indigenous to Australia and New Zealand would benefit by putting indigenous people’s interests before what we believe might be our own. If we take time to think about these things, I believe that right action will flow.

Any last thoughts?
You sent me these questions before the Paris attacks, so that has been heavy on my mind as I’ve been reflecting on the situation in Australia’s detention centres in the Pacific…Australia’s “Pacific Solution.”

If the Pacific is to be a solution, it will not be in the way that Australian policy is currently positioning it.

One thing that is very clear is that Paris and Beirut and Nauru and Manus and Syria and Somalia and Afghanistan and Iran and Iraq and Pakistan and Bangladesh and Sri Lanka and New Zealand are all connected. But we are being connected in ways that are not of our own making. We need to reclaim our own sovereignty over these connections.

My Banaban community was relocated to Fiji by the British between 1945 and 1947—ostensibly with our leaders’ consent, but I wouldn’t say it was full and informed consent. Once we got to Fiji, and after we got over our disorientation, we realised that we could not depend on the British to safeguard our future—after all, they were gleefully mining our homeland. So we found out whose indigenous lands we had been moved to, and we paid tribute to them, acknowledging their customary stewardship. As Banabans, we never forget that we’re living in someone else’s land. That’s a lesson that has informed my understanding of what it means to be a migrant myself, and I think it’s an important paradigm shift to make.

We cannot assume that the government that welcomes or rejects or detains refugees is representative of the indigenous people of the land. Europe has lost much of its sense of indigeneity and because of World War II keeps conflating indigeneity with ethno-nationalism. But Pacific people should not surrender our ethics of hosting to either our own governments or the governments of other countries. Māori are good at asserting mana whenua. I guess that’s what I’m talking about: mana whenua leads to mana tangata; without the former, you can’t get the latter.

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