Behaving as close friends should

Focus, Normal

The National, Monday July 29th, 2013


AUSTRALIA’s asylum-seeker resettlement agreement with Papua New Guinea must be seen both as a regional initiative as well as a PNG response to a request for aid from its closest friend. 

The deal, signed by Prime Minister Peter O’Neill and Australian counterpart Kevin Rudd 10 days ago, has attracted criticisms from PNG people and internationally who say that the Government should give priority to its domestic issues, problems, concerns and questions.

The point is made that the Government’s decision undermines the sovereignty of PNG. 

Other issues against such an arrangement include the non-existence of a social welfare system to cater for the refugees; social problems including the high unemployment rate as well as the urgent need to resettle islanders who have been confronted with natural disasters and the effects of climate change; the bulk of the land is owned by the people so there is insufficient free land to resettle the asylum seekers. 

Also pointed out is the fact that the country has a strong Christian influence. The accommodation of refugees who practise other religions has the potential to endanger society. 

A general assumption is that the refugees will not easily blend with PNG’s cultural norms and values.

Nonetheless, Papua New Guineans should carefully analyse the asylum-seekers deal as it is a short-term arrangement, 12 months, subject to review. 

The procedural requirement to determine genuine asylum seekers will involve a rigorous selection process subject to domestic laws so there is no guarantee that all boat people will qualify as refugees. 

Australia’s primary intention is to strategically close its door to people smugglers who lure people to pay them substantial amounts of money, promising opportunities in Australia. 

They make risky journeys in boats and the many deaths along the way have ignited human rights issues. 

Australia’s secondary motive is to discourage the growing number of potential asylum seekers who travel long distances only to discover that just a handful are granted refugee status.

Australia, having concluded that people smuggling is a regional issue even though the destination is Australia came up with its resettlement concept. 

It is considered a regional initiative which would enable genuine asylum seekers to resettle in PNG after they are processed in Manus.

It has taken a considerable amount of time for the Australian government to resolve the issue. 

Rudd asked PNG for its help when he visited the country earlier this month and O’Neill wasted no time in responding favourably because of the urgency to address the issue.

The PNG government did not choose material gain ahead of national interests when it agreed to this arrangement.

PNG is a Melanesian country and its people are famous for “give and take cultural practices”. 

These practices include helping a closest friend in trouble. So when Australia requested help, PNG had no option but to accept the proposal for resettlement.

Australia agreed to increase aid and special consideration has been made to fund health, education and law and order sectors. 

Although there are benefits for Manus Island and other selected centres, these should not be seen as inducements for the agreement to happen.

Australia has been helping PNG since independence and the aid package is part of its ongoing assistance programmes which are heavily concentrated on poverty alleviation, infrastructure projects and capacity building programmes. 

The important thing that PNG must understand is that people do not buy relationships. It is important to help one another in tough times and grow the relationship.

As South Pacific neighbours, some foreign policies of either country will affect the other.

There is also evidence that the arrangement has deterred people smugglers and potential refugees from heading to Australia. 

Seriously, no one will be interested in being resettled in PNG, a country which is predominantly Christian and has not yet proven its democratic maturity. 

PNG cannot exist in isolation from the rest of the world as a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention.

PNG has an obligation to assist asylum seekers fleeing genocide or a totalitarian government they fear.

In the South Pacific, PNG is viewed as a leader, hence it has an obligation to assist with some of the contemporary issues such as people smuggling, illegal fishing and climate change as well as help smaller island states. 

PNG’s relationship with Australia is reflected through a simple friendship based on a set of common interests and values. 

This friendship should be demonstrated by the support and assistance both countries must give each other when times are tough. 

PNG cannot continue to be a recipient of assistance from Australia – it must also return favours for strategic reasons. 


  • Brian Yombon-Copio is a former PNG envoy to Solomon Islands and the Republic of Vanuatu.
  • He has studied international relations, business and language in Australia and Britain.