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Bulolo & Manam, our very own ‘refugee’ crisis ignored for years

As the PNG government tries to get out of the political and diplomatic quagmire created by the refugee center deal, its own displaced people live in care centers largely unassisted.

refugee.jpgCass Anduari lives with his family under a government building at the edge of Bulolo Town.

The elderly gentleman’s family was among dozens of ethnic Sepiks forced from their homes during a clash with the local people in 2010.

They’ve built wooden platforms on the ground on which they put mattresses to sleep. The place doubles as a living area. During the day mosquito nets are rolled up so meals can be served.   They drink water from a tank at the back of the building.

“This is where I’ve lived since the crisis. We have received very little in terms of assistance. It’s not much, but where can we go?”

Close by, other members of his Sepik community live in makeshift buildings.

They can’t cut trees to build because of restrictions by landowners. They use what they can from the nearby PNG Forest Products sawmill.

Further down the road, behind the Bulolo Police station, A larger group of some 500 adults live in a tight cluster of shelters made from cardboard, timber and tarpaulin.

They have no clean drinking water. Their main water source is a hole in the ground used for drinking and washing. The water is dirty and sometimes it smells.

The Bulolo District has been working to map out plots of land to resettle the families. It’s taking a long time weaving through the process of land allocation. Many of the settlers say it’s incompetence that’s causing the delay.

In 2014, one settler said: “We have our own refugee type problems here in Papua New Guinea. Here we are displaced while the government is signing deals with Australia to accommodate foreign refugees. Are we not citizens worthy enough of immediate government attention?”

In 2010, the Bulolo District tried repatriating some of the families to East Sepik Province where the their older generation came from in the early 1930s.   But the Districts efforts didn’t work out. Months later, they returned to Bulolo after having difficulty settling in.

One woman said: “We couldn’t stay there. Yes. We know that’s where our grandfathers came from. But we don’t know the place. We don’t know who our family members are. It’s a strange place. Bulolo is home. This is where our family lives.

Four hundred kilometers away, another crisis has been ongoing.

More than 15,000 Manam Islanders displaced by volcanic eruptions in 2004 live on old plantations. There is now a chronic land shortage.

Like the Sepiks in Bulolo, the islanders are unable to obtain building materials for houses or plant food gardens because of restrictions by local landowners in Bogia.

The land shortage and population pressures triggered clashes between the clans of the Bogia district who played host to the Manams 15 years ago. The Bogias accommodated the Manams on the understanding that they would be resettled on government acquired land.

That has not happened.

“Many of the older people have died of sorrow. They don’t have the freedom they had on the island. They can’t fish. They can’t walk about in the bush. Because its not theirs. They don’t belong here,” a community leader said.

In the last parliament, the Manam Resettlement Bill was brought to the corridors of parliament but didn’t make it to the floor.   Disagreements between the Madang Governor Jim Kass and the Bogia MP caused the bill to fall through.

There was again another attempt later.

As the PNG government tries to get out of the political and diplomatic quagmire created by the refugee center deal, its own displaced people live in care centers largely unassisted.

While there have been promises and political statement made on the resettlement of the Manam people, nothing tangible has happened. The Sepiks of Bulolo, remain in the main care center behind the Bulolo police station.

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