Ryan Schram Yawahigu ana amwahao Ol rot bilong laip bilong mi (or, Curriculum vitae)

Frontier, colony, pre-border: PNG’s latest role in Australian sovereignty

Kissing points

As a Californian, one of the more prominent elements in the current debate over refugees is the role played by boats. A sign on Interstate 5, the main north-south corridor of the US West coast, introduced me to the idea of irregular migration.

“Caution” near San Ysidro (Grafton 2005).

Imagine a yellow road sign bearing an oddly emotional scene: The silhouette of a family, a husband and wife towing a small girl by the arm, heads down and in full sprint, the woman’s long hair tossed backward, the girl nearly tripping. There is no text other than ‘Caution.’ What were they going to say? Pedestrians crossing from Mexico?

Where ‘boats’ stands for undocumented movement in this debate, bridges and roads represent the same in the American West. Of course, there are no signs on I-5 indicating circular migration between rural Mexico and Californian farms. In both cases, we use an iconography of crisis. Migrants make a break for it and breach the border – watch out!

Recently with the news from Lampedusa we’ve been reminded again that none of this is unique. Around the world, the issue of refugees and migrants’ rights comes up again and again, but in particular places. Yasir Arafat called these places ‘kissing points’ (Rubin and Rubin 2003, 135), border zones where the sovereign territory and legal jursidiction of one country juts into another region and another kind of socioeconomic and political reality. If we look at this map prepared by Migreurop, an migrant-rights NGO, we see that these are bloody spaces too.

‘De morts par milliers aux portes de l’Europe’ (Lambert 2012)

Europe has effectively moved its border south and become a new kind of fortress. In creating a space for a certain kind of movement, it has also created more kissing points, though. That’s the paradox of territorial soveriegnty, the more one attempts to demarcate different jurisdictions, the more one’s sovereignty depends on giving power to people on the outside.

Australia and Papua New Guinea’s shared history

Manus Province’s Lombrum patrol boat base in its own way also represents this kind of paradox. It is here that successive Australian governments have sought to place an offshore centre for detaining migrants who come to Australia, a pre-border for entry which is conveniently very far from the border of Australia.

The peoples of New Guinea, citizens of Papua New Guinea, and Lombrum have played this role in facilitating the sovereignty of Australian commonwealth in the past. First, though, let’s ask the question, “Why PNG?”

When one thinks of PNG, one thinks of a remote, isolated place. While Samoan scholar Epeli Hau’ofa (1994) pushed back against the Western concept of Oceania as far-off islands, this seems to be precisely what’s attractive about places like Manus and Nauru. In 2001, the Australian government investigated using Misima, an island in PNG even smaller than Manus, as a centre (Australian Associated Press 2001). Remoteness, however imagined, is why they serve well as places of deportation and exclusion (Pugliese 2010). It’s a well-worn defense strategy of Australia and other countries to seek out remote points from which to establish a zone of security. Hence the peoples of the Pacific enter into a special kind of relationship to Australian society as islands. The remoteness of Pacific societies places may be a misperception, but it also offers a role for them to play in creating sovereignty on the mainland.

Lombrum point on Los Negros Island is the location of the patrol boat base in Manus Province where refugees will be detained. The US Navy built the base in World War II. US and Australian Navy stopped off on their way to Korea. After independence, it became a PNG defense force base. Defense planners continue to look at it as a base for the Australian and American navies. Thus Lombrum is remote in a specifically very convenient way.

Its name comes from the indigenous people who live there and possess a customary title to the land. Very little land in PNG, even that used by the government, has been permanently alienated from indigenous peoples. That has always been part of the bargain of colonization in New Guinea. In exchange for submission, indigenous peoples would have their territory recognized as their property; custom would become part of common law. In practice, this has meant a variety of things, but, generally speaking, land has become the dominant idiom of politics in PNG, and this is particularly worth noting because it gives standing to a much wider range of people.

How does the PNG solution look from within PNG? Like an issue over land. For instance, a recent article in the PNG Post-Courier has the headline: “Landowners want benefits spelled out” (Nicholas 2013).

‘What benefits will we receive?’ (Nalu 2013).

The story reports that the Kohonaleng clan, owners of the asylum centre’s land, want to know how they will be compensated. They even named a figure: twenty million kina for “seed capital for Manus to kick-start businesses that would over the long term support the asylum processing facility” (ibid). Other local leaders have campaigned to get more jobs and benefits from the Australian and PNG governments in exchange for use of the base. They complain that they’ve been shut out of opportunities to manage the garbage dump for the base, but have to put up with the pollution. They have blockaded the dump and threatened to cut off the water supply.

What kind of a claim is this? Are local residents simply being opportunistic rent-seekers?

First, we clearly can’t interpret this as a demand for payment for the land, or for the rent of the land per se, let alone a protest against the taking of land. The land for the detention centre sits squarely within the boundaries of the Lombrum base, and does not additionally deprive local people of anything. The base itself has long been valued by these very same residents as a source of employment and entrepreneurial opportunity.

Second, we must note the precise wording of the demand: Capital, to start businesses, which will support (read: sell to) the centre, over the long term. Depending on how you read the statement, you don’t even have to be Kohonaleng to get in on the deal. This is a very Melanesian theory of development. What does this approach say about the relationship of Kohonaleng to the Australian and PNG governments?

This is a politics which starts with the assumption that sovereignty does not exist in the abstract, and that Rossum and other Manus cultures can participate in the Australian control over its own borders. It also starts with the premise that, for all of its wealth, the Australian government has no power unless someone accepts their dollars and gives something in exchange. This exchange is not merely a swap between two self-interested parties, but an opportunity to participate in a wider sphere in which Manus people have value. Also, implied in his demand, the speaker indicates that Manus people want to have the right to negotiate everything in the deal. They suggest that the won’t commit in advance to an abstract public good which would prioritize PNG’s foreign policy over their customary territorial rights.

It has to be said that this calls for diplomacy which Canberra and even Waigani are ill-equipped to conduct. The Australian (2013) and the ABC (Cooney 2013) reported these claims as threats and protests, quoting one Manus MP who used the words ‘guerilla war’ to describe locals’ blockade of a gravel pit. The Post-Courier printed a sympathetic editorial, but largely focused its criticism on lack of media access to the base (2013). Generally these kinds of compensation claims are labelled obstructionist or opportunist in elite policy circles in both countries.

Postcolonial ethnopolitics of citizenship

Now this kind of ethnopolitics raises all sorts of unanswered questions, and I hope we discuss them. My postmodern critique of borders does not lead to any easy answers of what a postmodern politics of migration should look like. Before we discuss this, I would like to add one more complexity to this situation. When Manus Islanders occupy a dump or a water main to assert rights as landowners, they are doing the same kind of thing as many of the asylum-seekers around the world.

Chromolithograph of the Italo-Turkish War peace treaty (The Rossotti Litho and Printing Company 1912).

Close to Lampedusa, there’s another little island off the shore of Tunisia called Pantelleria. Like Lampedusa, it has been a kissing point between Roman, African, Ottoman, Arab and Italian cultures for centuries. It is now part of Italy, and presents a tantalizing target for boats leaving Tunisia. Maltese and Italian coast guards often rescue migrants from the sea. In 2011, a boat sank and over a dozens were pulled out of the water (“Thousands Cross Ocean to Seek Refuge on Italy’s Shores” 2011). They sought asylum and many also claimed Italian citizenship. They said they were descendants of people who settled in Italy’s new frontier, Libya, after World War I. They were settled on Sicily while their genealogies were evaluated. In other words, in the face of the new Fortress Europe they based their right to migrate on jus sanguinis of Italian law. One could say that this is a mere technicality, and good luck to the few who may actually have the right blood quantum. I would like to push the reading of the tactic further. There are many cases around the world of different kinds of patriation – changing one’s family ties into legal grounds. It highlights an inevitable fact of territorial sovereignty, which is that people are not its subjects but its medium. My point here is not so much something about biopower, but rather something about the ways that all state power is contingent upon human kinship and human kinship is never fully contained within the imaginary territorial envelope of state sovereignty. Human bodies and human reproductive capacities also reproduce societies and their institutions. The boundaries between PNG and Australia are marked in genealogical degrees, and yet the two societies can never be separated; just ask the people of Saibai and Boigu Islands in the Torres Strait.

This post was orginally presented as remarks at a roundtable discussion on the PNG Solution at the University of Sydney on October 14, 2013.


Australian Associated Press. 2001. “Manus, Papua New Guinea May House Center for Asylum Seekers.” Pacific Islands Report. October 16. http://pidp.org/archive/2001/October/10-16-10.htm.

———. 2013. “Manus Island Landowners Threaten ‘Guerilla War’ Against Detention Centre.” The Australian, September 2. http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/policy/manus-island-landowners-threaten-guerilla-war-against-detention-centre/story-fn9hm1gu-1226709098089.

Cooney, Campbell. 2013. “Manus Landowners Block Access to Detention Centre”. Text. ABC News. August 28. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-08-28/manus-landowners-block-access-to-detention-centre/4918158.

Duke, Trevor. 2013. “FactCheck: Can Children Under Seven Be Sent to Manus Island?” The Conversation. http://theconversation.com/factcheck-can-children-under-seven-be-sent-to-manus-island-16313.

Grafton, Earnie. 2005. “Increased Border Security Has Made Warning Signs Like This One on I-5 Largely Unneeded.” The San Diego Union-Tribune, April 10. http://www.utsandiego.com/uniontrib/20050410/images/n_sign.jpg.

Hau’ofa, Epeli. 1994. “Our Sea of Islands.” The Contemporary Pacific 6 (1): 147–161.

Lambert, Nicholas. 2012. “De Morts Par Milliers Aux Portes de l’Europe.” Atlas Des Migrants En Europe: Géographie Critique Des Politiques Migratoires. Paris: Armand Colin. http://www.migreurop.org/IMG/pdf/map_36.1_des_morts_par_milliers_aux_frontieres.pdf.

Nalu, Malum. 2013. “Malum Nalu: Manus Landowners Want a Fair Go on Asylum Deal.” Malum Nalu. http://malumnalu.blogspot.com.au/2013/08/manus-landowners-want-fair-go-on-asylum.html.

Nicholas, Isaac. 2013. “Landowners Want Benefits Spelled Out.” The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, August 22, sec. Home News. http://www.postcourier.com.pg/20130822/news04.htm.

Pugliese, Joseph. 2010. “Transnational Carceral Archipelagos: Lampedusa and Christmas Island.” In Transmediterranean: Diasporas, Histories, Geopolitical Spaces, edited by Joseph Pugliese, 105–124. Brussels: Peter Lang.

Rubin, Barry M., and Judith Colp Rubin. 2003. Yasir Arafat: A Political Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier. 2013. “Editorial: Consult Islanders on the Asylum Centre.” The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, August 22, sec. Yu Tok. http://www.postcourier.com.pg/20130822/yutok01.htm.

The Rossotti Litho and Printing Company. 1912. Chromolithograph of the Italo-Turkish War Peace Treaty. Lombardi Historical Collection. http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Italo-Turkish_War_peace_treaty_chromolithograph.jpg&oldid=475190698.

“Thousands Cross Ocean to Seek Refuge on Italy’s Shores.” 2011. The Daily Star, February 25. http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Thousands+cross+ocean+to+seek+refuge+on+Italy%27s+shores.-a0249908073.