Monday, July 29, 2013

Asylum Seekers


Some of you may have noticed that PNG has been in the world news over the last week and a half or so in regards to Australia’s new asylum policy. Here’s my attempt at a summary based on what I know:

For many years Australia has struggled with what to do with the increasing number of people who arrive by boat seeking asylum status within Australia. For some time now, some of these people have been intermittently held on Manus island (also PNG’s northernmost province), and on the independent state of Nauru while their claims for asylum in Australia were being processed.

With approaching elections, the Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who just recently replaced Julia Gillard as PM and the leader of the labor party’s government, declared with PNG’s Prime Minister, Peter O’Neil, that:

  •         all new asylum seekers will be temporarily held in PNG while their claims are processed.

  •        AND those who have legitimate asylum claims will not be settled in Australia, but in Papua New Guinea or other Pacific island states!


In return, PNG gets more control over what it does with the half a billion dollar per year aid budget that Australia contributes to the country. O’Neil has wanted this for a while. I’m myself uncertain whether any new aid money is being given, or whether the only real difference is that the PNG government will now have more control over where that money is spent.

There are a lot of unanswered questions, but I can’t help but feel uneasy about the whole thing. It seems to me that both sides of the agreement only think this will work because it will create a strong disincentive to those seeking asylum. What if the people smugglers and asylum seekers call the bluff, though? What if tens of thousands of people continue to pour into the country?

Already some at the grassroots level feel resentment since many areas of the country lack the most basic services (roads, clean water, clinics, hospitals, and schools). Some of my students felt that PNG can’t afford to go against what Australia wants. Others are convinced that this will be well worth it, though this belief was predicated on the belief that Australia would significantly increase aid (which I’m still uncertain about; it may be that control over the aid money is the only real change), and that all of the aid money will really end up helping Papua New Guineans at the ground level.

The Catholic Bishops Conference of PNG and the Solomon Islands has a Commission for Social Concerns that issued a document related to the issue. It expresses some concerns, but of course doesn’t presume to prescribe specific policy measures.

Deni Tokunai, PNG political commentator and an UIS alum like myself, has also written some commentary on the issue. Like the CBC document, he points to Article 42 of the PNG Constitution, which states that citizens and foreigners cannot be detained without having done something wrong. Given that the asylum seekers would be brought into PNG against their will, they won’t have broken any PNG laws when they get here. It provides some food for thought.

My own concern which I haven’t seen much discussed, is that while being willing to accept asylum seekers (even as part of a political deal) may be termed generous and hospitable, recent years have seen an increase in resentment and xenophobic attitudes in PNG, particularly towards Asians. The resentment seems primarily tied to their success in running retail establishments throughout the country. Given that many of these asylum seekers are Asian, I think it’s legitimate to ask whether these people would really feel much safer here in PNG.

The political pragmatism of the deal leaves a bad taste in the mouth, but at the same time, perhaps if Papua New Guineans could muster a sense of genuine hospitality and compassion for those seeking asylum, sharing what little they have, then they could serve as a prophetic question to countries with far, far greater resources.

May God grant wisdom to the political leaders of both Australia and PNG, and may their decisions be genuinely motivated by a concern for “the least of these.” May God grant all of us including myself the grace to be more generous and hospitable to the most needy and vulnerable in our world and in our neighborhoods. 

Monday, July 15, 2013

Dry Season


It took a while, but the dry season is finally upon us. For quite a while we had joked about the dry season starting whenever we had about 48 hours without rain. Now we’ve only had two or three very short (though sometimes intense) downpours over the last 2 weeks or so.

Unlike the highlands, the dry season here has been accompanied by stronger and more consistent winds coming from the ocean. These winds coupled with the slight drop in humidity and the slighter drop in temperature have made the climate more temperate than normal. (I still sweat a lot, in case you were wondering)

On a couple notable occasions the wind reached "epic" levels. A couple of our papaya trees with too much fruit on top were snapped by the force of the wind. One morning our whole green area between the friary and the school was littered with coconuts and dried coconut fronds that kept falling throughout the day and night. 

Besides the regular humdrum of classes, I’ve had my mind stuck in books about the  12th-14th centuries. I’ve also been battling a cold, which has been choosing to linger for several days now.

Other significant events have been waking up to discover a sizable cockroach "tickling" the underarm of my elbow. (Is there a better word to describe that? I'm trying to describe the place opposite the elbow...) I also nearly stepped on a giant centipede that had wandered into my room. Unlike the cockroach, he/she was brushed outside of my room alive. 

We’re entering a “home stretch” now with less than a month until our second trimester ends. 

Pray for me to pray more and pray constantly. It's disconcerting to find that I can somehow manage to go through a whole day without feeling like I ever really entering into a prayerful attitude despite the fact that I live in a place where at least two hours every day are set aside for communal prayer (half of that in silence).

Monday, July 8, 2013

Soccer, Inquisition, Peter ToRot


It’s been a while. Here are some snapshots of what’s been going on:

1) Every Sunday we can hear the noise of soccer games coming from across the inlet. Last Sunday I hitched a ride on a dugout canoe across that inlet for the first time. A guy I ran into from Mediba village (our nearest neighbors) suggested that I could play on their village team if I wanted to. I ended up doing exactly that, and it was a pretty good time.

I was glad to see that the local soccer league is actually pretty well organized. Every team has uniforms and is required to wear proper soccer “boots” (what Americans call cleats) and shin guards. We shook hands before playing with the opposing team and it seems there are very few fights and everyone respected the referees, who were appointed by the village level government leaders. (One drunken man did get viciously beat up by bystanders when he came out of the periphery towards where women were selling snacks. This is unfortunately par for the course in many parts of PNG.) The individual soccer clubs have been around for a while, some going back to the 1970’s. I was told that the team I played on (Dolan, after Dolan Bay) had once had a “big name”, but some of the older players got married and stopped playing and the younger guys struggled to fill those shoes.

My trip across the bay and back was actually my first time in a dugout canoe. This is the closest I’ve ever lived to the coast in PNG. I am definitely heavier than your average Papua New Guinean in this area—a wave of a couple inches might have been enough to upset us, but the waters in our bay are usually remarkably calm and we made it across without incident. I will probably long retain a mental picture of the beauty of the sun setting as I returned, with the mountains in the background and the bay in the foreground. (Sorry, no picture; I wasn’t going to risk carrying anything not water proof with me!)

2) I’ve been considering writing something up about what it means to be a “waitskin” in PNG for a while. I don’t have any insights right now—just some observations and some things that bother me.

3) I have just a few pages until I finish reading a book about Inquisitions. I read a book about the crusades about nine months ago. I guess somewhere in my mind I’ve resolved to learn more about those two historical phenomena. For many people, the very mentioning of the “inquisition and crusades” constitutes an airtight, self-evident argument against Catholicism (and more often, against Christianity in general).

The book I’ve been reading, by Edward Peters, has actually been remarkably good. He presents a broad history with an academic tone, and then proceeds to also spend at least half of the book talking about the myth of “The Inquisition” and how the idea of the inquisition has been used during several distinct phases of polemical usage. This is particularly helpful because it helps to explain why “The Inquisition” carries such dark connotations.

All in all, I still have questions about both historical injustices. I actually have more questions about the crusades than the inquisitions, at this point. Despite this, I may still feel frustrated by the flippancy with which we (post)-moderns tend to judge past actions.

To many of us past injustices can seem not only objectively wrong, but completely indefensible. In many cases, I agree that they were objectively morally wrong, but I also believe that in many cases, humans find the immoral option to seem more reasonable and more defensible than the moral option.(the way to destruction is broad and the way to eternal life is narrow...). Understanding a society’s unexamined assumptions (such as the axioms that a society cannot survive without religious homogeneity, and the principle from Roman law that true justice requires a confession, even if it be derived from torture) can go a long way in helping us to understand how easy it is to rationalize that broad path. Instead of haughtily deriding everything in the past, I think such stories should lead us to ask how Jesus will later judge our unexamined assumptions when He returns to “judge the living and the dead.” (not how we will be judged by later generations, who may after all judge us in the “light” of their own particular blindness!)

4) Some guests of my fellow volunteer Steve came and provided us with some fresh conversation. They left some American peanut butter and copies of the New Yorker magazine, which I’ve read a fair deal of over the past week.

5) Yesterday we had no classes, an outside Mass, and an afternoon mumu (pig cooked in a pit) in honor of Blessed Peter Torot, a Papua New Guinean catechist, husband, and martyr. He was killed at the hands of Japanese occupying forces during World War 2 directly because of his perseverance in gathering Christians for prayer and for continuing to uphold Church teaching on the sanctity of marriage. Here's another link to a summary of his life.

Blessed Peter Torot, pray for us!