Money, manipulation and misunderstanding on Manus Island

04 November 2016

Joanne Wallis from ANU College of Asia and the Pacific explores the impact of outsourcing Australia’s responsibility for asylum seekers on our Pacific neighbours in PNG.

Last month, trauma expert Paul Stevenson told the Guardian that the "atrocity" of Australia's offshore asylum-seeker processing regime on Manus Island and Nauru was the worst he'd seen in his 43-year career. But while there has been significant debate about the effects of offshore processing on asylum seekers, there has been little consideration of what it means for Papua New Guinea.

The Manus regional processing centre has been lauded by the PNG and Australian governments for the increased Australian aid and spending it brings. In exchange for PNG agreeing to host the centre, Australia agreed to provide an extra $420 million on top of the $507 million in aid budgeted for PNG in 2013-14. This aid is needed; while Australia ranks second out of 188 countries on the UN Development Program's 2015 human development index, PNG ranks 158th.

Extra Australian funding has improved local infrastructure in Manus province, although the vast majority is spent elsewhere. This is despite the fact that Manusians primarily bear the cost of the centre, which has damaged their roads and seen waste dumped on their food gardens.

The economic benefit for Manusians is also questionable. While some have been employed at the centre, they are paid significantly less than their Australian counterparts. Despite this, more money flowing into the province has led to investments in guest houses, hardware stores, car-rental companies and grocery stores. The centre has also engaged in local procurement. Most investments are targeted at servicing the centre, and it is unclear how sustainable they will be once it is closed. More money flowing in has also caused local inflation and rising food prices, and is said to have exacerbated social challenges, such as prostitution and alcohol abuse.

The centre has also negatively affected local security, exacerbated by the fact that the notorious Royal PNG Constabulary mobile squad has been deployed to Manus since 2012. Squad members are said to have been involved in a number of security incidents, including two deaths. There have also been incidents involving asylum seekers, most notably the February 2014 riots that resulted in the death of Reza Barati and injuries to at least 69 asylum seekers.

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 Last month, trauma expert Paul Stevenson told the Guardian that the "atrocity" of Australia's offshore asylum-seeker processing regime on Manus Island and Nauru was the worst he'd seen in his 43-year career. But while there has been significant debate about the effects of offshore processing on asylum seekers, there has been little consideration of what it means for Papua New Guinea.

The Manus regional processing centre has been lauded by the PNG and Australian governments for the increased Australian aid and spending it brings. In exchange for PNG agreeing to host the centre, Australia agreed to provide an extra $420 million on top of the $507 million in aid budgeted for PNG in 2013-14. This aid is needed; while Australia ranks second out of 188 countries on the UN Development Program's 2015 human development index, PNG ranks 158th.

Extra Australian funding has improved local infrastructure in Manus province, although the vast majority is spent elsewhere. This is despite the fact that Manusians primarily bear the cost of the centre, which has damaged their roads and seen waste dumped on their food gardens.

The economic benefit for Manusians is also questionable. While some have been employed at the centre, they are paid significantly less than their Australian counterparts. Despite this, more money flowing into the province has led to investments in guest houses, hardware stores, car-rental companies and grocery stores. The centre has also engaged in local procurement. Most investments are targeted at servicing the centre, and it is unclear how sustainable they will be once it is closed. More money flowing in has also caused local inflation and rising food prices, and is said to have exacerbated social challenges, such as prostitution and alcohol abuse.

The centre has also negatively affected local security, exacerbated by the fact that the notorious Royal PNG Constabulary mobile squad has been deployed to Manus since 2012. Squad members are said to have been involved in a number of security incidents, including two deaths. There have also been incidents involving asylum seekers, most notably the February 2014 riots that resulted in the death of Reza Barati and injuries to at least 69 asylum seekers.

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The centre has been intertwined with the manipulation of democratic processes. PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill agreed to host the centre without substantive debate in the parliament. Democratic accountability has also been undermined by restrictions on journalists visiting the centre.

There are questions about the manipulation of the rule of law. To try to make the detention of asylum seekers comply with the PNG constitution, O'Neill persuaded parliament to amend section 42(1), which guarantees personal liberty. In April, the Supreme Court found this amendment was unconstitutional and that the detention of asylum seekers was therefore illegal. Subsequently, O'Neill announced the centre would close and the PNG government would ask the Australian government "to make alternative arrangements for the asylum seekers". However, the centre continues to operate; the Turnbull government apparently delayed its response.

In addition, a local politician has alleged that crimes by Australian personnel at the centre were covered up, and the alleged perpetrators were spirited out of PNG before they could be questioned by local police. According to a 2005 PNG Supreme Court decision, Australians (and all other foreign nationals) living and working in PNG should be subject to PNG laws, except those granted diplomatic immunity. Any cover-up undermines the rule of law in PNG.

This may also have implications for efforts to combat corruption. Sam Koim, chairman of (the now disbanded) Taskforce Sweep, which was created by O'Neill to investigate government corruption, has noted "there is some scepticism that Australia is held over a barrel with the asylum-seeker deal and is willingly turning a blind eye to the corruption and rule of law problems that are plaguing" PNG.

There appears to be misunderstanding of the challenges arising from resettling refugees. Early this year, eight asylum seekers determined to be refugees were resettled in Lae, where they experienced assault, robbery and threats. Half returned to Manus.

Yet while some asylum seekers have expressed fears about being released into the community, Manusians are equally concerned. After the Supreme Court decision, the remaining 900-odd asylum seekers and refugees were allowed to leave the centre during the day. Some are said to have engaged in excessive drinking, marijuana smoking and the assault of local women.

These issues highlight broader concerns about how resettled refugees will fit into the PNG community. They may be viewed by Papua New Guineans as economically advantaged, given that they receive Australian assistance. There are also concerns about how the mostly Muslim refugees will integrate with PNG's largely Christian community. And the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has expressed concern about refugees who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or intersex, as homosexuality is criminalised in PNG.

There are also questions concerning how resettled refugees will find jobs, particularly as PNG remains a primarily subsistence barter economy. Connected to this is the question of where resettled refugees will live; most land in PNG is held under so-called customary land tenure by kin groups. Refugees do not have access to customary land, and will therefore either need to strike bargains with landowners or pay often very expensive rent to live on state land in urban areas.

The PNG government bears some responsibility for the costs of the money, manipulation and misunderstanding generated by the centre. It failed to live up to democratic processes in agreeing to host the centre and has failed to adequately ensure the rights and security of those affected by it.

The bulk of the responsibility lies with successive Australian governments. Australia is a vastly wealthier country, yet it has outsourced its legal and moral responsibility to asylum seekers and refugees to PNG. PNG is Australia's nearest neighbour, the stability of which has long been acknowledged as of crucial strategic import. Offshore processing might have generated some short-term political capital. But time may reveal that, in addition to the damage caused to asylum seekers, the damage caused to PNG, and in turn to Australia's security, is much costlier.


This was first published in the Canberra Times is based on a forthcoming article in The Journal of Pacific History, co-written with Steffen Dalsgaard.

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Updated:  11 January, 2015/Responsible Officer:  Dean, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team