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.