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  • From Drifters to Asylum Seekers
  • Steffen Dalsgaard (bio) and Ton Otto (bio)

On 16 January 2015, a Manus-born Papua New Guinean posted on Facebook: “To all the security guards that were involved in the recent altercation at the as Camp, mi laik tok faakin good one stret . . . paitim ol” (I would like to say, fucking good one . . . bash them). This was in response to a confrontation in the Manus Regional Processing Centre in Lombrum, Manus, Papua New Guinea (PNG). This confrontation allegedly occurred between security personnel and asylum seekers who had barricaded themselves in one of their compounds. The asylum seekers were feeling the despair of having lived for more than two years under hideous conditions and were now facing a transfer to another facility (a nearby transit center) and the prospect of resettlement in PNG rather than elsewhere (see also Wallis and Dalsgaard 2016). The security guards, on the other hand, were . . . well, what were they doing? What motivated their attacks on the asylum seekers, and why were they applauded for doing so?

The Facebook comment was far from alone—others referred to letting the asylum seekers “go die,” and an incident in which two asylum seekers were beaten by police in the Manus urban center of Lorengau was even condoned on Facebook by one of the Manus mps (Rooney 2017). It is, as pointed out by Michelle Rooney, a researcher who is herself of Manus descent, as if the whole situation seemed to engender an atmosphere in which violence was acceptable. It was almost as if the bodies of the asylum seekers were regarded in public as homo sacer, “bare life” outside of law or at least without human rights (Agamben 1998; see also Salyer, this issue; West, this issue).

Of course, there were and are voices of moderation and sympathy (see Chandler 2014), but as anthropologists having worked in Manus for several decades, it was shocking for us to witness people we knew from our [End Page 503] long-term fieldwork—people who had welcomed us into their homes— display such negative sentiments toward the asylum seekers, even if they were not in the majority. Manus people themselves often stress how hospitable Manus is. Some have even regarded the felt obligation of hospitality as problematic and as a potential cause for conflict when it is misinterpreted by visitors (Pokawin and Rooney 1996).

In order to qualify the discussion of what the processing center has meant for people in Manus and how it can be interpreted in light of Manus people’s relations to “outsiders,” we unpack three key themes that in our view have been central to the encounter that Manus people have had with alterity both historically and—as is our contention—in the present: (1) the role of violence in the past and present; (2) the theme of kin, exchange, and relationships; and (3) the value of hospitality. Taken together, this unpacking provides a corrective to some of the more simplistic reports about Manus and a historical backdrop to the actual interaction that has taken place between Manus people and asylum seekers since 2013.

At the time of German colonization at the end of the nineteenth century, the Manus region was characterized by frequent warfare. Both Manus oral history narratives (Otto 2006) and contemporary observations testify to this. Trader, planter, and collector Richard Parkinson wrote, for example: “The condition of war is probably nowhere as permanent as among the Manus” (Parkinson 1911, 400), and German colonial officer Heinrich Schnee remarked how dangerous and cunning the Manus warriors were compared to men from New Ireland and Buka, who served as his soldiers (1904, 195). While there is little doubt about the prevalence of fighting—a narrative that rests alongside the stories of precolonial cannibalism that have been exploited by Australian authorities to deter future asylum seekers (see Salyer, this issue; Kaiku, this issue)—there is less consensus about the causes of this warlike state. We would like to emphasize two aspects that we find important for our discussion: first, we see warfare as an element of a regional system of exchange, specialization, and competition (see Schwartz 1963), and, second, colonization itself was very likely...


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pp. 503-508
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