Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Why most in PNG don't care about Manus

Why most in PNG don't care about Manus
Published 4 May 2016 

The PNG Supreme court ruling last week that the detention of asylum seekers at the Manus Island was illegal did not come as a surprise. The PNG judiciary has always been fiercely independent and it proved so once again.

It is also not unusual in PNG for governments to do the wrong thing and only correct their actions when ordered to by the Supreme Court. And sometimes not even then; the illegal ousting of the Prime Minister in 2011 has still not been rectified even after several Supreme Court decisions on the matter.

However the detention of asylum seekers (or illegal immigrants depending on which side of the fence you sit), has hardly galvanised sentiment in the PNG public except among politicians and lawyers and those on Manus.

In fact, most Papua New Guineans could not care less about the whole issue.

In my hometown of Wewak, the entire population is focused on simply getting on with life in these hard economic times. Next door in Madang, they are just recovering from an ethnic clash which shut the place down. Similar stories can be found all around the country.

This is what happens when you are ranked 158 out of 170 odd countries in the United Nations Human Development Index (Australia is ranked 2). We are very much inward looking and worried about our own problems.

Politically, PNG will always stand ready assist Australia in whatever way it can, this is the Melanesian way. We stepped in to help Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, and Fiji, and we will continue to step in as required. At home though, most folks are worried about medicines in the clinics and teachers in the classroom and hoping there may be a job opening down the road.

The court decision will not affect the politics of PNG. We will continue to vote for the people who promise to bring home the most freebies. Our politics is not determined by doctrine or conviction but by very basic human needs. [fold]

As harsh as this sounds, it is the hard truth. Perhaps this is the reason why the majority of the so-called asylum seekers on Manus island refuse to be settled in PNG. They have probably figured out this is a much more difficult place to put down roots than the countries they left behind.

I suspect that if PNG were further up the human development ladder, if it was a place bounding with opportunities, then asylum seekers would choose to stop here and not keep going to get to Australia.

That prospect might warrant more significant investment on the part of Australia's leaders if they want a more effective — and legal — buffer between Australia and boat people.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user: Tanaka Juuyouh

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