The Violence of Omission: Australia’s Refugee Policy

The following guest post is written by Dr Kristian Lasslett, Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Ulster, and accompanied by photographs by Philippe Schneider from his project Where We Live Matters (please click on the photos to see them full size and resolution).

Refugees travelling by boat to seek asylum in Australia – ‘unauthorised maritime arrivals’ as the government calls them – have, over the past decade, become prime electoral fodder. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the lead up to the 2013 Federal elections in Australia. The opposition leader, Tony Abbott – whose party leads the opinion polls – has announced that if the Liberals win government asylum seekers rejected by a single government caseworker, will have no recourse to the courts. A noted conservative, Abbott’s devotion to the enduring institutions of liberal democracy seemingly excludes the rule of law. Former Liberal Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, slammed Abbott’s policy announcement: “There are no limits to which the opposition will not go to demonstrate inhumanity to people with a significantly demonstrated need.”

However the opposition’s abandonment of basic democratic principles has been equalled in tenor by the governing Australian Labor Party. In a carefully organised media event, the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, announced that ‘genuine’ asylum seekers would be resettled not in Australia, but neighbouring Papua New Guinea (PNG). This will include ‘unaccompanied minors’ with family members currently living in Australia.

A vibrant Melanesian nation – and former Australian colony – 85% of PNG’s seven million citizens live in rural areas, where kinship systems remain fundamental both to community self-organisation and to land title, in a country where land is 97% customarily owned (although 12% of PNG’s land-mass has been temporarily alienated through special agricultural business leases, many of which were fraudulently obtained).

This recent lurch right in Australia’s refugee policy, the public has been told, is necessary to deter those escaping persecution from making the potentially perilous trip to Australia. The government has been at pains to point out, lest we doubted them, that this policy is about saving refugee lives, not as some cynics have suggested, electoral engineering.

Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Bill Shorten, told the ABC’s Q&A program: “I think it’s terrible to perpetuate a business model where a shonk in an unsafe ship can sell you a ticket which will mean that you or your family could drown … when I hear the discussion about compassion, it is not compassionate to hold out a proposition which will see so many people exploited by unscrupulous people and let them drown.”

Nevertheless, Papua New Guineans – not surprisingly – have taken particular exception at their country being viewed by Australian policy makers as a punishment hellish enough to deter those escaping war and extreme forms of political persecution. Anyone privileged enough to spend time in PNG’s urban and rural communities would know despite its terrible international wrap – contributed to by sensational news headlines – Melanesian culture is typified by hospitality. Indeed, the unassuming stranger is often treated with embarrassing kindness when traversing into PNG’s village areas; colourful community celebrations, the slaughtering of pigs and a delectable array of tropical garden treats are not uncommon sights for the visitor.

That said, for refugees being permanently resettled in PNG such experiences will be trumped or replaced by very practical challenges that will invariably emerge. These challenges stem largely from the country’s political economy.

As a national elite has found its feet over the past two decades, and entrenched itself in positions of power, the state has been gradually transformed into a lever for syphoning off revenues generated by PNG’s lucrative enclave industries – that centre on natural resource extraction – redistributing revenues into the pockets of small ‘robber-band’ cabals who seize positions of influence within government. The head of PNG’s anti-corruption agency labels this predatorial system of casino capitalism a ‘mobocracy’.

Whether it be formal inquiries into Finance, Lands or the Works department, the same themes appear; mismanagement at the highest levels, and illicit transactions which range from the trading away of state land for a bribe or defrauding the public purse of millions through illicit schemes of various complexity.

As a result of this criminogenic political economy, rural and urban citizens alike in PNG have had to organise themselves and their communities through informal governance structures, in the face of a parasitic elite, who has manifestly failed to offer any form of social stability. Informal bonds of solidarity that centre upon ethnic identity, kinship and custom –  which themselves are evolving to encompass new interests and challenges – have proven critical. Indeed when besieged by senior government officials and their clients, communities can draw upon shared identities and strong customary bonds, to marshal a defence of local interests. Nowhere has this been more palpable than in a recent spate of forced evictions in the nation’s capital, Port Moresby.

Numerous settlements – a name given to unplanned communities which have developed over the last century, largely on state land – containing thousands of people, have been subjected to the threat of forced eviction. Each story is subtly different, but common themes include illegal land-transactions, the use of state violence to displace residents, and the resilience of victimised communities in the face of persistent attacks.

Allan, community youth leader of Paga Hill and his friend Frank are sharing this mosquito net. Their family homes were demolished on May 12, 2012. (P. Schneider)

Allan, community youth leader of Paga Hill and his friend Frank are sharing this mosquito net. Their family homes were demolished on May 12, 2012. (P. Schneider). Please click on the image to see it full size and resolution.

For example, in Paga Hill – a waterside area that abuts Port Moresby’s central business district – community leaders have launched the Paga Hill Arts Resistance Movement which employs music, theatre, dance and photography to tell national and international audiences about their struggle against the Paga Hill Development Company, an outfit run by foreign businessman, Gudmundur Fridriksson – a man whose companies have been censured in numerous Auditor General and Public Accounts Committee reports. Despite being brutally attacked by armed police at the company’s behest, the defiant residents of Paga Hill have successfully resisted forced displacement and remain at the place many have called home since the 1950s.

Robert and his wife Gimsy are sitting in front of their house with their baby asleep in between them. (P. Schneider)

Robert and his wife Gimsy are sitting in front of their house with their baby asleep in between them. (P. Schneider). Please click on the image to see it full size and resolution.

Other communities have been less fortunate. West Papuan refugees – fleeing a silent genocide over the border – living in Port Moresby’s 8-mile precinct were forcefully displaced after the property’s owner obtained an eviction order. At first the displaced West Papuans camped out at Ela Beach before being moved to two further locations. Finally, they were relocated by the National Capital District Governor on a piece of state land known locally as the drain – so called because the land is zoned as a drainage area for the deluge of water that follows Port Moresby’s many heavy storms.

A group of men are washing from a hose connected to a broken water pipe.  When 21 houses at Paga Hill were demolished, all water and electricity supplies to the community were damaged. (P. Schneider)

A group of men are washing from a hose connected to a broken water pipe. When 21 houses at Paga Hill were demolished, all water and electricity supplies to the community were damaged. (P. Schneider). Please click on the image to see it full size and resolution.

The contaminated water that regularly floods the community is a magnet for malaria carrying mosquitos. Lacking citizenship rights and the safety of numbers other ethnic groups enjoy in Port Moresby, the West Papuan refugees have experienced enduring indignity at the hands of the PNG state.

This family lives in one of the abandoned World War II bunkers. Tonight because of the hot weather they prefer to sleep on the roof. (P. Schneider)

This family lives in one of the abandoned World War II bunkers. Tonight because of the hot weather they prefer to sleep on the roof. (P. Schneider). Please click on the image to see it full size and resolution.

So, in a country gripped by inflation, indecent house prices and a high cost of living, where speculators and state officials work hand in hand, resettled refugees are going to endure many of the hardships faced by West Papuans, minus a common Melanesian bond which West Papuans share with Papua New Guineans.

Melody and his wife Stella are watching a movie on a computer. Melody is a music teacher and even with a full-time job they can’t afford to rent a house outside the settlement. (P. Schneider)

Melody and his wife Stella are watching a movie on a computer. Melody is a music teacher and even with a full-time job they can’t afford to rent a house outside the settlement. (P. Schneider). Please click on the image to see it full size and resolution.

Their most immediate need will be a place to call home. Secure tenure and satisfactory housing with access to clean water, electricity and basic services is something denied to many residents in PNG’s urban areas; resettled refugees are going to be hard pressed to find better.

If housed through the formal housing sector, new arrivals will need substantial financial assistance from the PNG government to pay extortionate weekly rents. In lieu of this, most resettled refugees will have to join a settlement; without the lever of kinship, finding a secure space will be difficult. At best they will have to settle on the least desirable vacant land – like the West Papuans. Refugees will struggle to access basic services, and the threat of eviction will never be far away.

A little girl sleeping on the floor with her mother seated beside her. (P. Schneider)

A little girl sleeping on the floor with her mother seated beside her. (P. Schneider). Please click on the image to see it full size and resolution.

What about relocation to the village? Rural areas will also be largely closed off to resettled asylum seekers who lack the kinship ties necessary to secure use rights to clan land. There is the potential for customary land to be converted into leasehold with local agreement; but the process is fiendishly complex and efforts to date by the Office of Urbanisation have had limited success.

Margaret is sitting on the front door or her house. During the day she sells betel nut to earn a living. (P. Schneider)

Margaret is sitting on the front door or her house. During the day she sells betel nut to earn a living. (P. Schneider). Please click on the image to see it full size and resolution.

The only other option, is the small amount of alienated land in rural areas of PNG. Yet this property is rarely uncontested; customary landowners dispossessed by the colonial administration or the church, for nothing more than a few trade goods, will take particular exception if outsiders are permitted to gazump their long denied ancestral claims.

There is a common phrase in PNG: ‘land is life’. This statement has taken on renewed importance as successive governments raid the state coffers, leaving services and infrastructure in a parlous state. The land has provided the people, what the state and resource extraction industry have not, security, food, reliable income, and a home. Refugees without land will have no life; and at the moment no viable strategy exists for securing this vital resource for those escaping persecution abroad.

The violence of omission will replace for many refugees settled in PNG the commissioned violence they have fled.

Dr Kristian Lasslett is currently Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Ulster and a member of the International State Crime Initiative’s Executive Board. He is editor of the State Crime Testimony Project and joint editor-in-chief of State Crime. Kristian has conducted fieldwork in Australia, Papua New Guinea, and the United States, and has published papers on state crime and criminological theory in leading international journals. His first book, State Crime on the Margins of Empire is forthcoming with Pluto Press. Presently Kristian is carrying out research on forced eviction, corruption, and civil society in Papua New Guinea. Follow Kristian on Twitter.

Philippe Schneider was born in France in May 1967. After dabbling in student activism whilst completing a Bachelor of Arts and Communication at university, Philippe found his calling as a Humanitarian Aid Worker. He has been exposed to the spectrum of human existence whilst working in Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, and Darfur. Philippe believes that the commentary of human experience can ideally be shared through the medium of photography and strives to create work that informs the social conscience. Find Philippe on Facebook, read more about his project, Where We Live Matters, or listen to this interview.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Lasslett, K and Schneider, P (2013) The Violence of Omission: Australia’s Refugee Policy. Available at: http://bordercriminologies.law.ox.ac.uk/violence-of-omission (accessed [date]). 

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