- A Brief on the Intersection between Climate Change Impacts and Asylum and Refugee Seekers’ Incarceration on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea
Through the case of Manus Island and its regional refugee processing center, this contribution to the dialogue on Australia-bound refugees and asylum seekers in Oceania offers a consideration of how the reception of refugees and asylum seekers may be related to the vagaries of and local responses to climate change. Instead of accepting a siloing of the political logics and narratives surrounding the refugee crisis and the climate crisis respectively, seeing these “concentration camps for alien refugees” as disposable sites for “toxic otherness” can help us understand the global treatment (past and present) of Pacific Islands and their populations in the age of climate change, during which the region has been equally revealed as a dump for toxic nuclear waste and plastic and for climate change– generated occurrences, such as sea-level rise. The case of Australia with respect to Manus (and Nauru) exemplifies a situation whereby a first-world nation—whose development paradigms have amplified the impacts of climate change—has entangled itself with these “prison islands” and the politics of climate change. This case is even more interesting because Australia, in relation to Papua New Guinea (PNG), is not just any first-world nation; it is also a former colonial master and influential player in regional politics. Australia has certainly used bilateral aid to persuade a cash-strapped PNG government to relinquish a piece of its sovereign space for use as a regional processing center.
Due to my remote location in PNG relative to Manus Island, this paper’s focal site of interest, it was difficult to monitor the in situ impacts of climate [End Page 484] change. In contrast, the media scrutiny in relation to the incarceration of refugees and asylum seekers on Manus is watertight, and little escapes the media spotlight. This commentary is thus a desktop study of information derived from official reports, journal articles, newspaper reports, and other credible sources available in the public domain. To direct my focus, I also draw on my time in social media discussion groups and forums (eg, the Facebook group “Manus Issues”) tracking issues Manus communities deem relevant, as well as pertinent interviews conducted during a three-day trip to Manus in 2013. In what follows, I go through different representations of the notion of “refugee” in relation to the impact of climate change on Manus communities.
Refugees and Climate Events
The term “refugee” has become widely used in PNG as a result of media coverage of the regional processing center on Manus Island, but a related term, “climate refugee,” has been generated as a result of climate change and its impacts. “Climate refugee” is a notion that originated from the climate change–mobility nexus and has a unique connection to Oceania due to the social constructs that define it or actively contribute to its establishment (Farbotko 2005). From a legal perspective, the term “refugee” does not include people who are environmentally displaced as a consequence of climate change–induced events (Gonzales 2018, 380), as they do not meet the legal requirement of having a well-founded fear that results in their search for refuge and can be used to justify their refugee-type situation (Pulu 2015). However, it must also be understood that for many in Oceania, the issue with the label “refugee” has not been about its legal definition; rather, it has more to do with the term’s negative connotations (Pulu 2015, 11–13).
In the context of Oceania, “refugees” have been represented as desperate persons attempting to cross the ocean in small, unseaworthy boats, seeking asylum in Australia. However, these persons have instead ended up in detention centers with appalling conditions, either on Nauru or on Manus Island, where the locals have been forced to stare the global refugee crisis in the face. Therefore, the term “refugee” has been connected to frightening images of guarded camps populated by foreign “refugees,” many of whom are in a state of mental and physical anguish. It is on this basis that the people of Oceania, including those on...