09/04/2014 13:43

The hard task of resettling refugees

By Fr Giorgio Licini – Catholic Reporter PNG

The Manus refugees all come from very troubled countries (Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan…). Ninety per cent of them are certainly genuine political refugees. The governments of Papua New Guinea and Australia will try to prove otherwise and take them back their countries of origin. But the world will call it a murder.

Under the present circumstances and agreements, therefore, Papua New Guinea will have to resettle about one thousand of the refugees currently held at Manus. But many of these men (there are only men at Manus) will have to be joined by their spouses and children now detained in other refugee centers in the Pacific or waiting to reunite with them from their countries of origin. Who can deny children the right to grow up with their parents?

We are looking therefore at about four or five thousand people eligible for resettlement in PNG; many more, of course, if Australia keeps on taking refugees to Manus Island. Fortunately, history proves that the relationship of PNG people with expatriates of all sorts (missionaries, colonizers, businessmen, simple workers, West Papuan refugees, etc.) is quite positive, peaceful and reassuring. Who can complain of PNG hospitality and kindness? There is no need, therefore, to fear for clashes between the locals and refugees in normal conditions of life and work.

The question is: will there be normal conditions of life and work? We know that refugees are wherever in the world and only some of them are being resettled in affluent countries after a lengthy process. Many of them rotten in slums at the margin of big cities or in refugee camps that are now more than one generation old. As far as Papua New Guinea is concerned, a good number of West Papuan refugees still have to find their way into our society and internally displaced PNG citizens, such as the Manam islanders in Madang province are also in a permanent limbo.

The idea if resettling thousands of Middle East, Asian and African refugees in Papua New Guinea is simply chilling. Think of the enormous cultural divide; the limited job opportunities; poor housing; different agricultural ways and traditions to name a few. Think also of the fact that affluent countries such as Australia can always accompany the resettlement process with psychological support, language courses, proper medical care (especially for children), a different cultural and religious sensitivity… The formal resettlement of refugees in a developing country such as Papua New Guinea is something totally new. We never heard of it taking place, let’s say, in Brazil, or Nigeria, or the Philippines, or Vanuatu…

Anyway, the Australians will not take one single person now out of Manus. They will put money in, but they will not take people out. The August 2013 agreement states that it is a PNG responsibility to screen the refugees and, according to the outcome of the investigation, repatriate them or resettle each one of them on PNG soil or in any other hard-to-imagine interested Pacific country.

The money that Australia is giving to PNG for the Manus camp and has promised for infrastructure development around the country is hardly going to pay for a probable logistic nightmare. Furthermore, the PNG Council of Churches recently stated that any financial gain made out of the plight of political refugees is tantamount to complicity in human trafficking; exactly like the criminal syndicates organizing the boats between Indonesia and Christmas Island and making big money out of it.

Sydney Catholic Schools Executive Director, Dr Dan White, announcing a scheme of free education for refugee students a few days ago, called for the immediate release of all children in detention, saying Australia was abrogating its responsibility as an affluent and compassionate society by failing to take them in. “I believe in 20 years’ time – he said - there will be a major government inquiry, just like we had for the Stolen Generations, where the next generation of Australians will condemn us for the way we have treated these children in recent years. I just hope education systems can stand up with their hand on their heart and say, "We did our best". (cathnwes.com)

Taken for granted that political refugees cannot settle in PNG as subsistence farmers (on whose land?) or settlement dwellers (do we need more?), will the public and private sector be in a position to provide them jobs, houses, education and health care? It should have been verified and discussed in Parliament before signing anything with Australia.  Still, only a positive and reassuring response to this question can spare Papua New Guinea of an impending social tragedy.

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