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Australia's PNG solution: The seeds of sectarianism?

Australia's PNG solution: The seeds of sectarianism?

As part of the 'Sectarianism and Religiously Motivated Violence' Masters course run by the Lowy Institute's Rodger Shanahan at ANU's National Security College, students are asked to write an article on contemporary sectarian conflict. This piece by William Stoltz was judged the best of those submitted. 

Last Thursday, Human Rights Watch Australia published a report explaining that, despite two years of processing, very few detainees have left Australia's Manus Island detention centre. The report also revealed that those who have been resettled have been unable to leave the island, access employment or undertake study.

The report is a fresh reminder that forced integration can throw up some wicked dilemmas, whether it is in Nauru or Australia's other offshore resettlement facility on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea.

Manus Island Detention Centre, 2013. (Flickr/Greens MPs.)

By introducing migrants that are ill-suited and ill-prepared for integration into PNG, Australia's refugee resettlement agreement with Port Moresby risks sowing the seeds for a future sectarian conflict. Indeed, we have already seen the manifestation of violent animosity towards these new settlers in the form of the deadly 2014 riots in which locals and police were implicated.

The Regional Resettlement Arrangement or 'PNG solution' was introduced by the Rudd Government in 2013 in order to settle unregulated migrants in PNG rather than Australia. Since then, the fusion of Operation Sovereign Borders and the PNG solution has fulfilled the Abbott Government's mantra to 'stop the boats,' with illegal arrivals, detainee numbers and deaths at sea all undergoing a sharp reduction. However, while the PNG solution is a resettlement agreement, this has never been its primary function. [fold]

It's a policy designed to deter migration to Australia; the task of settling people in PNG has largely remained an afterthought. No consideration seems to have been made for how difficult integration will actually be, nor has it been acknowledged that there is a serious risk of damaging PNG's social fabric if this integration fails.

History reveals that sectarian conflicts rarely have a single catalyst. There is often a cocktail of animosities generated as two or more communities distinct in race, language and worldview grind up against one another. In the case of PNG's 'Manus settlers', there are some pretty significant distinctions between them and their PNG neighbours:

  • Language: PNG's official languages are English, Hiri Motu and Tok Pisin, with the latter two being unique to PNG. The Manus settlers hail from Sri Lanka, Iran, Burma, Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, Somalia and Syria; none are English-speaking countries. While many Manus settlers have been learning PNG's languages in detention, their limited ability to communicate fluently will hinder integration, at least in the short term, and will only accentuate their characterisation as outsiders.
  • Ethnicity: PNG is comprised of a plethora of small yet distinct tribal cultures, making up 6.5  million people. Despite this diversity, ancient tribal animosities persist and migration from abroad is stagnant. The sense of unity that sustains the amalgamation of PNG's tribal cultures into a single state is defined by a common kinship to the PNG archipelago and shared Pacific ethnicities. It's difficult to see how an influx of mostly continental Asian and Arabic migrants can be smoothly absorbed into a country that has such a strong sense of its Pacific identity.  
  • Religion: The Manus settlers are almost all Muslim and will be entering a conservative Christian nation whose only mosque is frequently stoned and vandalised. While there are common values shared by Christianity and Islam, popular anxieties in PNG about Sharia law and violent Islamic extremism may generate suspicion towards the Manus settlers.

Owing to their different language, ethnicity and religion there is a growing sense of 'otherness' that surrounds the Manus settlers which might be compounded by PNG's domestic challenges, as well as inherent deficiencies in Australia's resettlement policy.

While PNG's political climate is relatively stable, the 2012 military-led instability is a reminder of how fragile its politics can be. If past events are anything to go by, the fulcrum of political power in PNG is the military and police. In times of political instability they have been proactive in bringing things to a head. However, both have also been guilty of ill-discipline and heavy-handedness, which doesn't aid the chances of a peaceful resolution to any future sectarian conflict.

How PNG's government develops and spreads the country's expanding energy wealth will also continue to be a source of consternation for a country rife with corruption and battling to lift over 30% of its population out of poverty. As we all know, the scapegoating of a maligned minority is an age-old political tactic for beleaguered governments and opportunistic oppositions alike. It is not outside the realms of possibility that a shrewd PNG politician might one day deploy this tactic.

Furthermore, it remains to be seen exactly how much and for how long the Australian Government will finance Manus settlers' resettlement once they leave detention. Too much support, for too long, and ordinary Papua New Guineans may well see Manus settlers as privileged, and not by what they bring but by how they arrived. Give too little and Manus settlers may be left adrift in an unknown country that they themselves never wanted to enter. Without adequate support to establish their livelihood, social isolation and discontent is a real possibility.

The sudden introduction of an alien people into an internally challenged, developing nation at our behest and on our doorstep could be the genesis of a profoundly wicked problem for future Australian governments. If the Manus settlers' integration fails and we see the creation of a disgruntled and isolated minority within PNG, it is possible that the country's development towards becoming a more prosperous liberal-democracy may be stunted by unrest or even the eruption of disruptive political violence. The resulting ill-feeling, perhaps even disdain, Papua New Guineans might feel for Australia would jeopardise what is already a tested diplomatic relationship.

By imposing this ill-formed migration policy we have placed short-term interests above our long-term aspirations for PNG and the Pacific region. Much more than has been acknowledged depends on the success or failure of the Manus settlers' integration.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Greens MPs.

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