“Say it loud, say it clear. Refugees are welcome here.”
This was the refrain sung out by about 500 strong demonstrators at Sydney’s George Street on July 20. It didn’t take long before I figured that the demonstration was about the Regional Refugee Arrangement (RRA) between Australia and its former territory, Papua New Guinea (PNG) which had been signed the day before (July 19). As the throng sang it louder, the message became clearer. Being a passer-by in Sydney and a non-citizen observer, the valour to rally for human rights was admirable, although hardly surprising.
Australian people are known to value liberty and equality in the spirit of egalitarianism and multiculturalism. These values underpin the Australian character for courage, endurance, mateship and sacrifice; the epitome of Australian Diggers on the Kokoda Campaign.
Being a Papua New Guinean I automatically became keen to know what ordinary Australians say about my country’s involvement in the ALP’s “PNG Solution”. So I became a ‘fly on the wall’ and joined the throng of demonstrators down George Street to Town Hall. At Town Hall, the message about human rights and the reprove of children in detention centres still rang loud. The inevitable, nonetheless was obvious, PNG does not have the capacity or the resources to process tens of thousands of refugees or have them adequately resettled there. Many demonstrators expressed fear about what they know, have heard, read or have experienced regarding PNG. Others used extracts from the Smart Traveller website and some even used Malaria infestation. There is no denying that any of those assertions and the context in which they were made were of genuine concern. I thought it was fair dinkum.
On the days that followed, the media brought new dimensions to the debate on RRA and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s hard-line approach to ‘stopping the boats’. Sadly, many labelled PNG a ‘hellhole’ to sensationalize the matter.
PNG can be many things to many people here; but using such a condemnation to criticise a government policy is preposterous. A growing number of PNG people share similar values and sentiments about human rights and individual liberty, even in adverse circumstances of socio-economic difficulties and public accountability.
While the country’s long-term economic prospects look promising with its mineral and hydrocarbon resources, particularly its multi-billion dollar Liquefied Natural Gas project as its significant driver for growth, development and poverty reduction. The socio-political dynamics of the country render these prospects fragile ones.
The health indicators however, are less comparable. With more than 80% of the population living in rural areas, infant mortality and maternal mortality rates are astounding. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates a rate of 49 per 1000 live births and 733 per 100,000 live births respectively. Accessing basic health services is often difficult and sometimes impossible due to physical remoteness and geographical barriers, cultural restraints or inadequacy in health facilities and infrastructure.
In October last year, the Couriermail ran the story of Catherina Abraham, a young PNG woman on a mercy mission to Cairns Base Hospital in northern Queensland seeking treatment for tuberculosis. Her case, unfortunately, was extreme. She was diagnosed with Extensive Drug Resistant Tuberculosis (XDR TB). XDR TB is an incurable form of TB. The options for treatment are extremely limited if not impossible. Catherina spent almost a year in isolation until her passing in March this year.
TB eradication remains a stiff challenge for many developing countries. For PNG, the task is enormous, because it has reached epidemic proportions. It requires significant investment not only for vaccination and treatment, but also in research and development. There is optimism nonetheless, as collaboration, research, and investment in medical science is gathering momentum globally. Young Papua New Guineans are on board in this exciting endeavour in various cutting edge researches and academic programs about Malaria, TB, HIV/AIDS, and other emerging diseases. Many of these researchers are in collaboration with many equally determined young medical and bio-medical scientists in institutions around Australia. For UNE the potential for any such collaboration is strong at the School of Rural Medicine and School of Health and the School of Science and Technology. Its comparative advantage in online delivery of programmes is a suitable strategy for medical research institutions in PNG to engage.
For the moment though, the all-too-important bilateral arrangement between the two countries over Manus Island hangs in the balance as new Liberal Government takes over.