6 Aug 2013

Continuing discord in PNG at Australia's asylum seeker scheme

5:15 pm on 6 August 2013

There are continuing signs of strong opposition in Papua New Guinea to the refugee resettlement agreement Prime Minister Peter O'Neill has signed with Australia.

Under the agreement all boat people trying to reach Australia will be sent to Manus Island and if subsequently found to be refugees will be resettled in PNG.

As Australian immigration officials have sent the first couple of plane loads of asylum seekers to Manus - around 80 males, mainly from Iran and Afghanistan - public anger at the deal in PNG is simmering.

Johnny Blades reports:

Police in PNG's capital Port Moresby stopped last Friday's protest march by university students before they reached the Australian High Commission. But not before the hundreds of students burnt copies of the refugee resettlement agreement they oppose so vehemently. The president of the University of PNG's Student Council, Nou Vada, says they want to pressure Australia to review the agreement.

"NOU VADA: The message is simple - the PNG solution is not on. And it's only going to make whatever problems there are in the country right now worse. In the view of the students, this is basically a two-man agreement between the prime ministers of both countries who failed to consult their respective governments and certainly the public."

A senior Papua New Guinea opposition MP, Dr Allan Marat, says in his view the agreement lacks legitimacy because Mr O'Neill failed to consult parliament about. Dr Marat, who is a former attorney general, says the agreement opens PNG up to a wide range of problems.

ALLAN MARAT: We understand the plight of the asylum seekers. But Papua New Guinea has enough problems of its own. And Peter O'Neill is acting as if everything is all right domestically, when, in fact, they are not. People are struggling, trying for better health services, better health facilities, better education infrastructure, better quality education.

There are already an estimated 8,000 West Papuan refugees from the neighbouring territory of Indonesia who have fled to PNG over the years. Vincent Manukayasie works with West Papuan refugees in Port Moresby for the NGO PNG Trust, says the status of many of these refugees remains in limbo. Mr Manukayasie says recent relief after the prime minister waived the hefty fee that such refugees have to pay for PNG citizenship dissipated at news of the Australia deal.

VINCENT MANUKAYASIE: The prime minister said, 'We'll waive the 10,000 kina citizenship fee and you can become a citizen'. Everybody is happy about it, but without realising this guy has got something up his sleeve, and all of a sudden he comes out with this deal.

He says the West Papuan refugees, who have struggled for years to survive on their own in PNG, are angry like many in the general populace about the new deal. Vincent Manukayasie warns the prospect of hundreds of refugees from foreign cultures settling in PNG is untenable.

VINCENT MANUKAYASIE: They won't survive in this hostile environment, you know? The environment, the weather, the climate - everything is hostile to these people here. And the people are also hostile.

Meanwhile opposition leader, Belden Namah, has re-submitted his court challenge to the government's decision to allow Australia's asylum seeker processing centre on Manus.