The Manus Island detention centre might not be the most dangerous place to be in Papua New Guinea, writes an Australian expat in Port Moresby.
Had Reza Berati not been killed last week in the violent clash on Manus Island — had he instead been quickly processed, found to be a refugee and resettled in Papua New Guinea — his safety could never have been guaranteed in this most violent of countries.
Papua New Guineans undoubtedly bear the highest burden of the brutality that takes place here daily. But foreigners are also targets for violence, ranging from opportunistic bag snatching and carjacking to rape, vengeance attacks and planned ambush and robbery.
Just a few months ago, PNG news sites on Facebook were flooded with images of two bodies, one with the head cut off, lying in pools of blood. The dead men, Chinese shopkeepers who ran a store in the Port Moresby suburb of Koki, were reportedly targeted by locals angered by both their prosperity amid the city’s poverty and by accusations they paid their local staff poorly.
Most foreigners avoid the Koki area entirely, fearful of being cornered by the men who cruise around the city in cars with “Baby on Board” stickers inked with the image of a Baby Glock pistol.
But in recent weeks carjackings and attacks on expats have increased, as they often do after the Christmas break, and our mobile phones beep daily with alerts about new attacks in what are considered to be the safer parts of the city.
PNG is known to be one of the most violent countries in the world, and its brutality isn’t confined to the capital of Port Moresby.
It’s estimated that at least one in three women in the country has been raped, and an argument over something trivial can escalate rapidly, with one or both parties killed or heavily wounded after tensions soar and machetes are produced.
These long bush knives are used by local people for everything from cutting the grass to carving up animals slaughtered for food, and their presence everywhere in PNG, hanging from belts or swinging casually in the hand of the person next to you on the street, is a constant reminder that things turn very nasty very quickly in this part of the world, which looks like a tropical paradise.
I am part of the community of Australian expats working in Papua New Guinea, be it on posting, in business or as consultants to Australian government programs. Those of us employed by the government receive extensive security training before moving to Port Moresby, including self-defence courses and driver training in which we experience mock carjackings and attacks. Foreigners working privately receive none of that training, unless they can source informal training in Port Moresby.
Most Australians working here, and the families who accompany them, have a great affection for this beautiful country of lush forests and soaring hills. Port Moresby is itself fringed on two sides by water, and ringed by hills dotted with vegetable gardens and signs that read “Keep Mosbi clean”. But we’re not allowed to visit the beach next to the city centre, or to walk the kilometre between our homes and the nearest supermarkets, or to shop at local markets without a security escort.
Despite stories about raskol gangs in the city, most people look busy and benign, and will smile back if you smile first. But we carry walkie-talkies in our cars, which are fitted with GPS tracking systems and emergency alarms, and our homes are bordered by walls topped with razor wire, and they are guarded by black-uniformed security teams.
The announcement by former prime minister Kevin Rudd that Labor would “stop the boats” by sending asylum seekers to PNG was met here with disbelief. The argument that it was a more compassionate and safer approach to ensure fewer deaths at sea was talked about with quiet derision.
“Safer” is a word rarely used to describe anything in PNG.
The local backlash was immediate. PNG has a strong and vocal media, which were quick slam Australia for using promises of more aid to bully PNG into doing its dirty laundry.
“But those who live here know that the local police are a law unto themselves, known for intimidation, standover tactics, theft, destruction of property …”
Then came the questions about resettlement for those asylum seekers found to be refugees: where would they live? Would they receive benefits that Papua New Guineans would not? In a country with high youth unemployment, would they take jobs that should go to local people? How would they integrate into PNG communities, given they come from backgrounds of violence and vendetta that made them leave their home countries? How would they get land?
In some parts of PNG, land is handed down through male lineage, in others through female lineage. Customs vary across this most diverse of nations, but there is one commonality — land is the only constant, the hardest thing for corrupt governments to take. Land stays in families for generations, and land disputes are without doubt the bloodiest and hardest fought.
So where, exactly, would these refugees live if no one wants them? And how could Australia possibly hope to vouch for their safety?
The Australian government has commandeered dozens of staff from the Department of Foreign Affairs, the former AusAID, Defence and Immigration to pave the way for an expanded detention centre. The government of PNG is responsible for processing their claims for asylum, but not one application from the 1300 men currently housed on Manus Island has been processed.
This comes down to not just a lack of expertise or capacity for the extra workload — it’s also a domestic political issue for Prime Minister Peter O’Neill, who knows the public has little appetite for resettling the foreign asylum seekers on PNG soil.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Immigration Minister Scott Morrison rely on the conservative argument that only the Greens or the far Left are concerned about the Manus solution. They need to understand that the Australians they pay to implement this policy are largely sickened by having to be complicit in any way in the illegal incarceration and internment of innocent people, who have the right by law to seek asylum.
You might say “get another job” — but would you sacrifice income, family security and career prospects?
Many of us hope that, by staying here to work on this horrific policy, we can help to change it for the better, to ensure that no more young men die in a prison camp, and to ensure that the ones who might be resettled here aren’t murdered because of the ethnicity that has already turned the Australian government against them.
Before Morrison admitted that the violence on Manus Island had, in fact, taken place within the walls of the detention centre, and that he knew this almost a week ago, he and Abbott denied the PNG police force or security firm G4S had any role in the conflict, other than helping to protect the detainees. Their statements were reliant upon the fact that few Australians have any exposure to Papua New Guinea’s police and security forces.
But those who live here know that the local police are a law unto themselves, known for intimidation, standover tactics, theft, destruction of property and random brutality towards people on the street, especially at marketplaces and on the roads, where they exact “tolls” from drivers and stall holders, regularly “confiscating” goods for sale, money and vehicles.
G4S guards have been implicated in many organised robberies around Port Moresby. Their guards are young, poorly paid and work long hours. They have no more incentive to protect citizens than do the police.
Despite the failings of PNG police, even the head of Manus police, Alex N’Drasal, has criticised Abbott for ignoring the concerns of the asylum seekers, and insisted that Australia must improve the running of the centre and the treatment of the people detained there.
*The author requested anonymity due to business relationships in PNG