Asylum seekers, negative nationalism and the PNG solution

There has been a lot written about the problems facing Papua New Guinea in the wake of the ‘PNG solution’. While some have highlighted the impracticalities of the arrangement, others (particularly Australian journalists) have called PNG and Manus ‘hell-holes’. The Daily Telegraph goes so far as to call the arrangement a ‘Hellhole Solution’. Many who support the refugee policy as well as those against it employ negative caricatures about PNG to further their arguments. While PNG does face some incredible challenges, narratives about the country have degenerated into name-calling.

Describing PNG as a ‘hell-hole’ overlooks the country’s achievements. PNG has one of the longest records of continuous democracy in the developing world, a rare and laudable feat for a culturally fragmented, poor and geographically challenged country. It has managed a recent mining boom, which has led to high levels of economic growth. Such name-calling denigrates Papua New Guineans themselves – many of whom are tackling the country’s problems head on, with steely determination.

Yet painting PNG as a basket case now underpins asylum seeker policy. For Kevin Rudd and Peter O’Neill’s solution to work, PNG needs to be promoted as a dysfunctional, violent, and all round unpleasant country. Once built, the Manus detention facility will hold 3,000 people; at the current rate of boat arrivals it will reach capacity in six weeks. As the Australian’s Rowan Callick points out, both Rudd and O’Neill hope that asylum seekers will find the thought of PNG so terrifying that they will not hop in a leaky boat, no matter how dire their circumstances.

So, in agreeing to the PNG solution, O’Neill and his government are effectively saying that PNG is a terrible place to live. I’m not sure that’s the best way to represent PNG on the world stage.

Negative assessments of PNG are nothing new. Indeed, some Papua New Guineans have become so used to people telling them they don’t quite measure up that they believe it. Anthropologist Joel Robbins’ study of the Urapmin people of West Sepik (pay-walled article here) found that, influenced by Christian teaching, the Urapmin considered themselves sinners, inferior to members of other nations, such as Australia or the United States. The Urapmin thought of their Papua New Guinean nationality as a negative attribute:

“the Urapmin see their national identity as Papua New Guinean as a source of much that they dislike and wish to reject in themselves” (Robbins 1998, 110).

Robbins called this ‘negative nationalism’. Negative nationalism is the product of being constantly reminded of your nation’s inferiority.

The risk of constantly repeating unconstructive negative assessments of PNG is that people will believe them, which can in turn undermine citizens’ willingness to find answers to their problems. This was brought home to me during my PhD fieldwork in PNG during 2008, where I found that ‘negative nationalism’ was reflected by anti-corruption protestors. Drawing on international and local concerns about corruption in the country, these protestors believed that only white people coming from less corrupt nations could save PNG from corruption. According to them, Papua New Guineans did not have the wherewithal to do so (a notion the Ombudsman Commission, Transparency International PNG and Taskforce Sweep, among others, challenge).

Of course there’s nothing wrong with vigorous debate about a country and its politics. However, much of the recent discussion about PNG – reinforced by hardline policy – amounts to little more than a smear campaign.

Stories about the problems facing PNG are easy to come by; they are even easier to regurgitate whenever the country becomes newsworthy. Yet they offer a narrow perspective on PNG, and can help to reinforce a sense of helplessness and hopelessness. Papua New Guineans are capable of addressing the problems facing their nation (many already are); name-calling doesn’t add to, or even acknowledge, their capacities or their engagement with the nation’s many challenges. It doesn’t help identify possible solutions. Nor does it acknowledge the country’s achievements.

Politicians and economists warn that talking negatively about an economy damages investor and consumer confidence. ‘Talking down’ an entire country – even one as fragmented as PNG – also has its impacts.

Grant W. Walton is a Research Fellow at the Development Policy Centre.

Grant Walton

Grant Walton is an associate professor at the Development Policy Centre and the author of Anti-Corruption and its Discontents: Local, National and International Perspectives on Corruption in Papua New Guinea.


  • People ( especially those in their 50’s upwards) do refer back to the colonial era as being the time when everything was good, corupt free, law and order, ” The perfect time” as they say.

    I was born a few years before independence and saw gradual changes occur over time. I do not hold on to the colonial past where my people were called “kanakas” and the Kiaps and the white minority wielded power. It was a pathetic and a sarcastic past … No, its wrong to say that we still hold on to that.

    The colonial past was very degrading and much light has to be shed to fully expose that.

    • I agree with you Patrick.

      PNG should not be put down by themselves or by other people. To be clear we are still are developing country.

      Therefore no man has no right to degrade PNG!!!

  • Thanks Grant for that article it was a great read. and yes as a Papua New Guineans we do feel the effect of the name callings and the negetivity of this great land.

    One of the reasons that is very obvious is the lack of being literate. Hopefully the next generation of Papua New Guineans (those born after Independence) will make that shift. Only time will tell…

    With the refugees saga, I don’t know what the big deal is when we have Irian Jayans strewn all over Kiunga in Western Province and Sandown Provinces. They should also be treated in the same manner as those now being processed… I deeply feel sorry for this setback.

  • Thanks for the insights Grant. I think that you are right to shift the focus of debate from denigrating PNG to better understanding opportunities and challenges that refugees are likely to face in the country (both in detention and when released into the wider community) and all other Papua New Guineans face on a daily basis. We all know that the corner stone of the PNG Solution is its deterrent factor to potential asylum seekers arriving by boat to Australia. If income and living conditions are important to asylum seekers then it is helpful to know that GDP per capita in Australia is more than 30 times that of PNG (although only 15 times on a PPP adjusted basis; however there are question marks over this PPP adjustment for the case of PNG). So clearly ending up in PNG is much worse relative to Australia if these average income levels are a reasonable reflection of the potential income of refuges in each country. In terms of living conditions and access to services, we know that they are much worse for the average Papua New Guinean relative to that in Australia but refugees settled in PNG are not necessarily going to live lives like the average Papua New Guinean – they could be better off (eg through special privileges paid for by the Australian government) or worse off (eg subject to discrimination, landlessness, and lack of community support). There is also the question of the standard of living in PNG that refugees might achieve relative to the conditions in their home country. Understanding these incentives should play an important role in informing the debate on PNG Solution. I’d like to see more objective analysis and less name-calling.

    • Thanks for the insightful comments Tony.

      My piece focuses on the potential impacts on PNG and Papua New Guineans. But you are right, there needs to be informed and more objective analysis of what all this means for Asylum seekers as well. For example, I’d like to know how family reunions (‘split family arrangements’) – which has been a central part of the Australian refugee intake, although the rules changed in 2012 will play out in PNG. And yes, it would be great if this analysis was sans name-calling.

  • What is so bad about PNG? Ask the Asians who are here and doing very well thank you. They appear to find life here a lot better than life in Guangdong, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka. Has anyone asked the refugees as to their opinion of PNG. There is little doubt that with their background of suffering and deprivation that they will rise to the occasion and succeed in their new country as do cuckoos in the nest of their foster mothers. This a great country for hardworking naturalized entrepreneurs. Maybe not so for the original inhabitants. It may all even out in a few generations if PNG forbids the importation of wives and husbands as happened in other countries. PNG can do without enclaves of other races; it may not be an entirely bad situation for the mixing pot to have a few more ingredients. Any lumps should be beaten out.
    Tony Flynn

  • I personally think the issues more to do with ethnic divide that we have. Though political idealism for nationalism is lacking due to the fact that people identify themselves with their culture and ethnicity.

    When it comes to social and economic condition of the country, we see a great divide. One area that needs more attention is the rise of ethnic clashes or what is known as Tribal terrorism. My fear is that lack of governance reaching the people will force more diversity, fueling ethnic nationalism.

    Though people under the concept of democracy they hardly understand the benefits of democracy. We blame corruption but it’s hardly corruption its lack of political will to correct wrongs. Your article clearly demonstrates the lack of people’s confidence in our political governance.

    Thank you

    • Yes you are right David, PNG is very ethnically divided and tribal affiliation is often the most prominent ‘nationality’ for many.

      However, as Robbins and others (like Robert Foster ) argue, people also identify as Papua New Guinean, this is reflected in national celebrations, advertising and even Christianity. This is particularly the case when comparisons of PNG to other nations arise. While someone might hold a very strong local/tribal identity, they can still say that PNG is good/bad/etc. compared to Australia, the US, or other nations. It’s a bit like when people from Melbourne go overseas and interact with people of other nationalities. They forget their rivalries with Sydney, and present themselves as ‘Australian’.

      I’m not saying that a sense of Papua New Guinean nationalism is as strong Australian nationalism. But PNG nationalism does exist.

      Thanks a lot for your comment.

  • Thanks for this fresh perspective, Grant.

    I wonder to what extent ‘negative nationalism’ is a legacy of how countries were treated prior to independence? Looking at Pacific regionalism for example, I’d argue that one reason Polynesian leaders (and Fiji) have historically been more assertive than Melanesian leaders is their different treatment by colonial powers (incl. Australia), which must have had an impact on how the population views itself. (Fortunately, this is now changing with the increased prominence of MSG etc).

    • Thanks for the Comment Matt.

      Yes, colonialism has likely played a big role in how the people in different countries of the region understand themselves, and possibly how their leaders engage with other countries. For example, cargo cults were a direct response to colonial rule in Melanesia but not so much in Polynesia. There are still many in PNG who romanticise about the colonial past. In 2008, I met a few members of Papua Besena – the Papuan separatist movement – who were still arguing that the southern part of the country should be a part of Australia. Colonial ties run deep in PNG, although they may be weakening in the wake of the PNG Solution – at least according to this blog.

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