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Refugees and new inequalities in the Pacific


Steffen Dalsgaard, Paige West, JC Salyer

Session presentation

The contemporary refugee crisis has placed the people of Papua New Guinea and Nauru especially at the confluence of forces of global inequality, international conflict, claims of sovereignty and national security, and neoliberal humanitarian regimes. How do we account for the complexity and interconnectedness of the forces behind the contemporary situations and spaces of displacement playing out in the refugee crisis across the Pacific? While refugees are not unprecedented in the Pacific, today’s refugees face an international refugee system in crisis, come from a wider global area, and are not Pacific Islanders. Under this set of circumstances, close-knit Pacific communities are being asked to attend to, contend with, work with, and provide care for, non-Pacific refugees. We hope to bring together research documenting local perspectives on the refugee situations, and to develop analytic frames and methodologies to help us understand this Pacific present. We thus invite papers addressing questions such as what forms of inequality have been generated by contemporary refugee crisis, and how these inequalities are dealt with; the roles played by new infrastructures and security apparatuses accommodating refugees; or how access to resources such as land, employment, and development aid are affected.

Paper submissions are closed

Accepted papers

From Drifters to Asylum Seekers: A History of the Other in Manus, Papua New Guinea

Steffen Dalsgaard (IT University of Copenhagen)

The recent influx of refugees to Manus Province, Papua New Guinea, via the Regional Resettlement Arrangement between Australia and Papua New Guinea has received a lot of attention both globally and locally. However, the way in which this influx affects how people in Manus generally view foreigners or the foreign (the Other) have yet to be discussed in comparative and longitudinal perspective. Manus groups have historically feared and loathed each other but also formed criss-crossing alliances to build their own strength and continuity. Oral history accounts for multiple examples of sole outsiders – either as ‘drifters’ or as locally displaced ‘refugees’ – having been included into existing social structures. One ethnic group (the Titan) has been accused historically of having a nomadic background without claims to land. This paper will discuss experiences in Manus with the handling of displaced people and ‘Othering’ – from the colonial situation (German and Australians), via Melanesian refugees to the present-day circumstances.

Extraction, incarceration and rising seas: the weaponisation of nature in Nauru

Anja Kanngieser (University of Wollongong)

Nicholas Beuret (University of Essex)

The 'small island developing state' of Nauru holds significant geopolitical power. It occupies a crucial nexus between colonial regimes of phosphate extraction and neo-colonial border management. The low-lying topography of Nauru, coupled with decades of strip-mining, makes it highly vulnerable environmental territory; in 2017 the Australian Lawyers Alliance evidenced the danger posed to Nauruans, asylum seekers and Centre employees by cadmium leakage associated with phosphate mining, and international climate change reports have noted the severe risk of impending sea level rise.

In this talk, we explore the relationship between environmental, infrastructural and economic vulnerability, and deterrence and incarceration. We ask, how are climate change and landscapes ‘exhausted’/contaminated by extraction, leveraged to intensify the restriction and trauma of detainment? Drawing on conversations with regional climate and refugee activists, we propose that environmental crisis plays a crucial role in a new regime of governance in which isolation, precarity and natural disaster are weaponised together to restrict the possibilities for movement and settlement. In this sense, we contend that Nauru illustrates a frontline site in which environmental stress is used as a neo-colonial tool for managing population flows and movements.

Old Savage, New Savage: The Denial of Human Dignity in the Age of Human Rights

JC Salyer (Barnard College, Columbia University)

Australia’s detention and exile of refugees on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea (PNG) is part of a worldwide abandonment of the obligation to provide humanitarian protection for displaced people and a refusal to recognize universal human dignity. While human rights institutions and instruments are rooted in the concept of human dignity, in practice, the denial of human rights protections are rooted in the denial of human equality. Australia’s exile of refugees to PNG (the so-called “Papua New Guinea Solution”) requires it to deny human equality for both refugees and Papua New Guineas alike. Globally, migrants are the new “savages” who, like pervious iterations of the savage, serve to define and validate western subjects. Today, moral panics regarding migrants confirm the value of western citizenship despite neoliberal austerity and anti-democratic socio-economic inequality by ostensibly demonstrating the value of the societies migrants seek to enter. Conversely, this characterization of migrants as threatening savages demeans any society deemed as an appropriate place to site them. In the case of PNG, this is done by mobilizing the old savage slot and characterizing the nation as a backwards and underdeveloped state that should be grateful for whatever aid it receives from its former colonial master. This paper examines the denial of human dignity in current immigration policies by closely examining the implementation and effects of the Australia’s PNG Solution.

Dispossession and Disappearance in the Post Sovereign Pacific: The Regional Resettlement Agreement between Australia and Papua New Guinea, an ethnography of loss

Paige West (Columbia University )

In July 2013 the Prime Ministers of Australia and Papua New Guinea agreed to the Regional Resettlement Arrangement between Australia and Papua New Guinea (colloquially known as “The Papua New Guinea Solution”) an international agreement that diverts asylum seekers who attempt to reach Australia by boat to Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, for immediate detention and processing, and then eventual resettlement in Papua New Guinea. Much of the analysis of this agreement has focused on the political economic relationship between Australia and its former colony and the international relations surrounding the questions of who will and can take asylum seekers who are granted refugee status. This paper focuses on the lives that have been touched by The Papua New Guinea Solution and asks how we as anthropologists (and other social scientists of global change) are to understand, theorize, and write about new forms of mobility and displacement and the new forms of subjectivity that result from them.