Unease in landowners’ paradise

Now that the country has simmered down from its initial shock over the refugee resettlement deal, it’s time for the people to face the harsh reality of this controversial arrangement concocted by Prime Minister Peter O’Neill and Australian counterpart, Kevin Rudd.

The burning question is how does PNG  resettle asylum seekers or rather the genuine ones?  Hopefully, O’Neill has the answer. Surely, one hopes, he has considered the issue and all his options before signing the Regional Resettlement Arrangement (RRA) with Rudd. There has been widespread criticism of the agreement, here and overseas, but the prime minister has revealed very little about his plans to implement the RRA so far.

When it was announced on July 19, all O’Neill told a press conference in Brisbane was that Papua New Guinea fully supported this major initiative to combat the scourge of people smuggling. He admitted that it was not going to be easy, “but of course, Papua New Guinea is blessed with lots of land mass and a very small population”. Bingo! We have lots of land to resettle these asylum seekers and lots of space to fit them in because there are only seven million of us.

But, of course, that is simply  ridiculous. Papua New Guinea may be the eastern half of the second largest island on the planet but crucially, whose land will be used for resettlement if it came to that?
Has the prime minister forgotten that the Government has access to only 3% of alienated land that is already occupied? The other 97% is customary land whose owners are among the toughest negotiators in this country. If the Government is planning to acquire customary land to implement the RRA then the prime minister must be mindful of the fact that Papua New Guinea is a landowners’ paradise where people demand to be fully compensated for development on and beneath their land.

Land is not only an invaluable commodity but also one of, if not the most,  sensitive issues in this country.
In fact, land is a matter of life and death for a great majority Papua New Guineans. O’Neill will need to tread very carefully if he intends to strike a deal with customary landowners in order to implement the RRA.
On the other hand, resettling refugees by creating special customary land leases may not be a feasible proposition at all. While all these asylum seekers are Asians, they are of different nationalities with different languages, cultures and religions.

To expect them to co-exist harmoniously in the Papua New Guinean environment is to expect too much, too soon.  History tells us that governments simply cannot legislate for people to exist harmoniously.
So how can this Government expect PNG society to all of a sudden assimilate people of different cultures, languages and religions? It is a known fact that Papua New Guineans, most of whom are Christians or come from Christian backgrounds, harbour scant goodwill for foreigners who are non-Christians, such as Muslims.
The prime minister’s recent appeal to his countrymen and women to put aside their religious and cultural bias and welcome asylum seekers into our society is a very big ask.

Indeed, it will take many years for PNGeans to change their mindset on coexisting with other foreign refugees. The other option to resettling refugees on customary land is to allow them to fit into the normal way of life in both urban and rural settings. They will need to seek employment or start their own businesses to be able to survive in this country, which was not their intended destiny. Our citizens will certainly not take kindly to the prospect of sharing their country’s scant resources such as jobs and small businesses with a sudden influx of foreign refugees.

And many of them will continue to berate O’Neill for allowing himself to be misled by his “good mate” over the arrangement. What the two leaders actually meant when they announced the RRA was: “Like it or lump it.” That is the harsh reality of a decision that can only be described as a massive victory for Rudd and Australia which gained everything.

PNG’s people are left holding the raw guts of a problem not of their making.
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OP/ED

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