Fleeing into persecution: sending women to PNG

22 Jul 13

By Angelica Neville

The first group of “boat people” subject to Kevin Rudd’s new hardline asylum seeker policy were intercepted off the coast of Christmas Island on Saturday. The 81 Iranian passengers included women, children and babies.

From this group, those found to be refugees will be permanently resettled in Papua New Guinea (PNG) and according to the advertisement will “never be settled in Australia.”

This includes women who will now find themselves in a country where they will again face persecution. Regardless of why they fled their homeland, they will be exposed to a profound risk of gender-based violence and certain gender-based discrimination.

A quick reading of recent Refugee Review Tribunal (RRT) decisions regarding PNG women who fled their homeland and applied for protection visas in Australia confirms this.

A refugee is somebody who cannot return home due to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, ethnicity or membership of a particular social group.

Gender based violence falls into the latter category. The most recent RRT decision regarding a woman fleeing PNG explains why a husband’s abuse of his wife amounts to persecution in this country:

“the threat of serious harm she faces comes immediately from her husband, but also, in the sense of what the Tribunal finds to be its discriminatory withholding of protection from the applicant, from the State itself…the Tribunal finds… that the essential and significant reason for the State withholding such protection, and thereby giving rise to the real chance of persecution, is the applicant’s membership of the particular social group comprising women in Papua New Guinea.”

Another requirement of receiving a protection visa is proving that relocation to other parts of the country is not possible.  This means proving that women fleeing domestic violence are still at risk throughout the whole state. The same RRT decision plainly states that relocating within PNG:

“would not eliminate or even reduce to a remote level the threat of Convention persecution faced by the applicant generally, given the country information about the rampant levels of sexual abuse of women in Papua New Guinea and as the evidence indicates that if she did relocate the applicant would be living without the benefit of male and/or familial protection.”

Rape and other violence against women is a pervasive phenomenon in PNG and crimes are committed with impunity.

Let us consider some key issues affecting women in Papua New Guinea that have informed the RRT decision above.

Firstly there are exceptionally high rates of sexual violence in PNG.

Approximately 50% of PNG women are victims of sexual assault, a number that stretches to near 100% in certain areas, such as the Southern Highlands.

According to the Australian Government’s website Smart Traveller “there has been an increase in reported incidents of sexual assault, including gang rape, and foreigners have been targeted. These crimes are primarily opportunistic and occur without warning.”

In 2012, the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women visited PNG and concluded that such violence is “a pervasive phenomenon in Papua New Guinea” occurring “in the home, community and institutional settings”.

Amnesty International recently described a case of three women being murdered and cannibalized in Madang province, having been accused of sorcery. In March 2013 it was reported that 150 people are accused of sorcery and murdered every year in just one province of PNG, and that the accused are overwhelmingly women.

Urban areas come with their own risks. Photojournalist Vlad Sohkin, who documented violence against women throughout PNG, describes how “Raskol Gangs” target vulnerable single women in Port Moresby.  He states:

“Every day most of the dozens of crimes are reported to be against women from Port Moresby slum areas. According to the words of Peter Moses, one of the leaders of ‘Dirty Dons 585’ Raskol gang, raping women is a ‘must’ for the young members of the gang…‘First young gang member should steal something, money or a car – and he will be admitted to the gang. After that he must prove that his intentions are serious and pass through some kind of ‘initiation’ – rape a woman. And it is better if a boy kills her afterwards, there will be less problems with the police’, says 32 year old Moses, who had raped more than 30 women himself.”

This violence against women exists within a justice system that rarely investigates or prosecutes offenders. There is also a high frequency of assaults committed by police against women in custody, which can deter women from reporting such crimes. Practical barriers, such as paying for medical certificates to document abuse, or being expected to pay for the police’s petrol (as happens in remote areas), make it especially difficult for women to seek justice.

PNG is ranked 134 out of 147 in the UNDP’s Gender Development Index, a measure that takes into account various aspects of gender equality.

Research consistently shows that being without “familial protection” or a “male guardian” puts women at an added risk of being assaulted in PNG. This logic is fully acknowledged by the Refugee Review Tribunal, who in multiple decisions conclude that, for this reason, relocation is rarely an option for PNG women fleeing their husbands.

The most recent country reports by the US State Department, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights all agree: rape and other violence against women is a pervasive phenomenon in PNG and crimes are committed with impunity.

That said, the profound ethnic and cultural diversity of PNG precludes generalisations about womens’ experiences of violence in PNG, and as we are yet to see where refugees will be resettled and under what circumstances, we can’t be sure what dangers they will face. Resettled refugees may be far removed (both culturally and geographically) from some types of violence, such as that related to accusations of sorcery.

Cholera is considered “endemic” in PNG and Smart Traveller recommends drinking only bottled water (will the Australian government be providing bottled water to refugees resettled in PNG in perpetuity?).

However if social marginalisation is a risk factor in being a victim of sexual violence in PNG, surely resettled women refugees, particularly those without a male guardian, will be vulnerable to such crimes?

Putting aside the immediate harm posed by physical assault, there are other issues that need to be recognised. PNG is ranked 134 out of 147 in the UNDP’s Gender Development Index, a measure that takes into account various aspects of gender equality.

To take just one example, women are still heavily discriminated against in the workforce and the RRT has noted that “many women, even in urban areas, were considered second-class citizens. Women continued to face severe inequalities in all spheres of life: social, cultural, economic, and political. There is no employment antidiscrimination law.” Will refugee women, doubly marginalised, be able to find employment if they wish or need to?

Finally, what mechanisms will be in place to help women deal with the many health risks in PNG? This affects all refugees and PNG citizens to be sure, yet as the primary carers of children, with less financial independence due to the reasons outlined above, women refugees may be excessively burdened by this challenge.

Cholera is considered “endemic” in PNG and Smart Traveller recommends drinking only bottled water (will the Australian government be providing bottled water to refugees resettled in PNG in perpetuity?). What of the risk of malaria?  The high rates of HIV combined with the unnerving counts of rape in a context of a struggling health care system is another serious human rights issue to add to the pile.

The Australian Government will need to ensure women refugees resettled in PNG do not become an underclass of the underclass.

Perhaps, as we speak, the Australian government is developing systems to ensure refugees do not become victims of violence, rape and discrimination in PNG, with a special task force making plans to protect refugee women.

We do know the Australian government is very conscious of the deleterious circumstances women face in PNG.  Julia Gillard visited PNG in 2012 and spoke of the “particular horrors” endured by women there, and pledged $320 million dollars over 10 years to empower local women. Recently there have also been large outcries in PNG about gender-based violence. The “Haus Krai” or “days of mourning” held to protest violence against women in May 2013 attracted thousands of people in Port Moresby, as well as to satellite events in Australia and New Zealand. The importance of these local initiatives must not be discounted.

However, until these initiatives have resulted in considerable improvements in the status and daily lives of women in PNG, the Australian Government will need to ensure women refugees resettled in PNG do not become an underclass of the underclass.

The Minister for Justice and Home Affairs did say, soon after the policy was announced, that “when we have the appropriate facilities and it’s safe for people to be transferred to PNG, everyone will be, initially, men.  Families and young children will be transferred when we’ve got the right accommodation to make sure they can be transferred safely.”

This makes some sense in terms of processing centres, but does not clarify the fate of those found to be refugees who will be permanently resettled in PNG. Will the government set up mini-communities in which the forms of violence endemic in PNG are no longer a threat?

Even if this were possible, to adequately protect refugee women from violence and discrimination would be to seriously privilege them above local PNG women, who have the same right to live free from the fear of such crimes.  This same problem applies to the task of providing all of the resettled refugees with access to basic human rights such as healthcare, employment, and education. As noted by international law Professor Ben Saul, “if such rights are guaranteed to refugees, that will create a different problem: PNG citizens will wonder why refugees are getting a better deal than them”.

Gary Zuffa, governor of the Oro province in PNG, has raised similar concerns. He said that providing resettled refugees with financing and opportunities not available to the local population would create hostility and division.

The only reasonable way to protect an especially vulnerable class of women from the high risk of discrimination, sexual crime, violence, possibly torture and even death in PNG is quite clearly not to send them there in the first place.