Crime and safety in the Pacific Islands: the use of victimisation surveys

Port Vila vegetable market, Vanuatu (Rob Maccoll/DFAT)
Port Vila vegetable market, Vanuatu (Rob Maccoll/DFAT)

While much of the recent focus in the Pacific region has been on the security implications of growing geopolitical competition, less attention has been paid to crime and personal safety and how these more parochial, everyday issues impact on the stability of Pacific Island countries and the wellbeing of their populations.

Crime victimisation surveys are an important research tool for ascertaining perceptions of personal and community safety, including experiences of crime and violence. Although such surveys have been previously used as part of a coordinated international effort, their usage has dwindled over the past decade to a few countries, where the results act as a resource for policymakers, government officials and community leaders seeking to enhance stability and safety in particular countries or areas.

Given that human security is inextricably tied to fear and risk of crime victimisation, it is timely to consider supporting more widespread adoption of such surveys and demonstrating how useful they can be.

In 2022, we were involved in a policing and justice study in Vanuatu that included a telephone survey of 1,016 adults. This experience provided an opportunity to reflect on what we had learnt and whether there should be a more standardised tool that would be suited to widespread and regular use in the region.

Crime victimisation surveys date back to the 1970s, when they were first undertaken in high-income countries like the United States and Australia. The surveys asked a representative sample of adults about whether they had experienced crime, what type of crime, and the harms that were caused. Such surveys were seen as an important way to find out about what was called the ‘dark figure’ of crime – that which was not captured by official records kept by police and courts. They also provided insights into the impacts of crime.

Over time, many countries have participated in the International Crime Victimisation Survey (ICVS), including low-income countries. The ICVS allows for comparisons between countries and cities, as well as informing national assessments and debates about levels of crime and responses to it. (The last ICVS survey appears to have been in 2021 in Uzbekistan.)

In the Pacific region, surveys on crime and safety are currently conducted at a national level in Australia and New Zealand and released publicly. In contrast, surveys in Pacific Island countries are typically commissioned by the aid sector to assess and plan law and justice, and policing, programs. In Papua New Guinea, for example, surveys were done for the Australian-funded law and justice program in 2015, 2018 and 2022. Although providing useful snapshots for particular times, the survey data and results have usually not been publicly released, and analysing broader trends and patterns is complicated by differences in the questionnaire and sampling frames used in the different surveys.

There would be advantages to looking at core elements to track changes over time, but such analysis is impeded by two critical factors. First, the widespread practice of outsourcing survey work to private contractors means that the data sets produced appear to remain the intellectual property of the company rather than the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade or the PNG law and justice sector. Second, it is not at all clear who can make the decision to release the data publicly, nor does there appear to be much appetite to do so among those involved.

Our experience in Vanuatu took an alternate approach with an altogether more satisfactory outcome. The questionnaire design drew on examples of past surveys in Vanuatu and neighbouring countries, including PNG. The survey was done in collaboration with the Australian and ni-Vanuatu stakeholders, and conducted by a phone company, which reduced the cost. The results have now been released publicly, and another survey is planned for the end of the program cycle, to see what has changed and can be attributed to the efforts of the program.

The Vanuatu policing and justice study underlined the importance of undertaking qualitative research to complement the survey. The focus groups improved our understanding of the perceptions and experiences of specific groups in the community, such as young people and people living with disabilities, and more generally, informed the interpretation of the survey results. It was also critically important to be able to draw upon past in-depth research to help design the questionnaire and to improve our interpretation of the findings. Designing a questionnaire relevant to the local context, while also containing elements enabling comparison with past or other country surveys, is a careful balancing act.

The results from the survey were of interest to domestic stakeholders such as the justice and policing services, and the non-government services that support and advocate for victims of crime, in addition to the Australian aid program and other donors. In terms of the general public and local communities, it would be reassuring that the survey confirmed that, for the most part, Vanuatu is viewed as a low-crime and safe country. The study did however reveal anxieties about the future, and limited accessibility, exposure and knowledge of the formal justice sector in many areas.

We believe there is merit in promoting wide use of crime victimisation surveys across the region, using core questions that allow longitudinal and inter-country analysis, and a commitment to make the results and the data publicly available. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has produced a manual to assist in the development and deployment of crime victimisation surveys. As a starting point, the manual could assist in developing the objectives and core questions of a survey.

In Pacific Island countries with small populations there is an understandable weariness among those asked to participate in multiple surveys. Where large-scale surveys are already taking place – for example, household surveys – it makes sense to incorporate questions about safety and justice rather than burden potential participants with separate surveys. This would reduce the costs and ensure crime, justice and safety have the attention they deserve.

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This research was supported by the Pacific Research Program, with funding from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The views are those of the authors only.

Judy Putt

Judy Putt is a research fellow at the ANU Department of Pacific Affairs.

Sinclair Dinnen

Sinclair Dinnen is a professor in the Department of Pacific Affairs, Australian National University.


  • Hi

    From a Melanesian perspective, I believe that policing our societies begins with upholding our ethical value that governs individual morality. Traditionally the ethical values that governs our society had a great impact in the peoples way of life. However, this is not the case nowadays due to culture shock and the inception of globalization that changed the peoples way of life.
    Hence, our traditional system of policing our society was very effective in a way that it control the behaviors and attitudes of the people. The policing system that is now practiced is more institutionalized and it is design to protect the so called wealthier and higher class people. Therefore, when a simple person from the society is involved in a crime or a offence he/she gets bitten up badly whereas the higher class is more of a respect and good questioning.
    What is the difference here? Is the government policing system created to defend humankind and constitute laws that will govern individual morality or is it becoming an institution that protects the higher class more than general public.
    Hence our traditional ethical principles were based on respect and integrity, although some practices were evil in nature but they all contributed one way or the other to maintain peace, unity and a good common relationship with everyone in the society.

  • thanks Judy and Sinclair, some very useful thoughts and suggestions ( including caution over using managing contractors or the like, who get tied up with complex contractual and copyright agreements, rather than commitments to public access, in conducting such surveys)… there are also all the issues related to how the State can respond or minimise potential victimisation, including at times from the police themselves.
    We’re aware of fear, especially by women in PNG to report crimes, as the police response in some cases can be unsatisfactory or sometimes worse. As you recall during RAMSI the AFP officers, with their belts full of gadgets, tended to instill fear ( which may have been useful regarding the waring factions) rather than community engagement. I’m over in the UK briefly now, and here also people say the police response can be highly intimidating now, with teams coming in to simple accidents or crime scenes and stringing everyone up, onlookers and all. I discussed this briefly with a retired senior female police officer, who bemoaned the belts full of taser and gadgets, and the apparent loss of community engagement and policing skills in forces in the UK. She said it was crucial to keep the police standards unarmed, witting observing that if she’d had a gun there’d have been times in the heat of the moment she’d have used it, to her subsequent regret and negative outcomes…

    • Thanks Paul. Yes, fear of the police remains a significant – and well-founded – factor contributing to low reporting of victimisation in PNG. I also take the point about the bulging police belts full of taser and other gadgets. The appalling recent case involving the tasering a 95 year old resident of an aged care facility (not that far from where I write this) springs to mind

  • This looks like an excellent suggestion, and the case for both establishing international compatibility (and thus comparability) of surveys and the public release of data to researchers appears to be irrefutable.
    As for “outsourcing survey work to private contractors means that the data sets produced appear to remain the intellectual property of the company”, that presumably is primarily an issue of how contracts are written, not who does the work.

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