Displaced and forgotten: the case of Manam islanders in Papua New Guinea

Young displaced boy from Manam december 2014

Displaced from their homes at the end of 2004, some 15’000 Manam islanders are still waiting for the Papua New Guinea government to make good on its promise to resettle them to a new location already identified years ago. Obstacles to the resettlement of these internally displaced persons (IDPs) include lack of funds, corruption, land disputes, poor leadership and an absence of political will. In the meantime, the displaced continue to live camps, where they lack access to basic services, livelihood options and adequate housing. They are also at risk of violence due to tensions with mainlanders around land issues. Having lost any hope of being resettled, some IDPs have decided to return to their island despite the clear risks associated with further volcanic eruptions. It is now high time for the government to end their displacement and provide the displaced with durable solutions.

IDP family in Manam camp december 2014
Displaced family in Manam camp, December 2014. Frederik Kok

It has been more than 13 years since an estimated 10’000 Manam islanders were evacuated from their island off the coast of Papua New Guinea due to a volcanic eruption. The displaced were moved to the mainland near Bogia and hosted in several IDP camps, officially referred to as « care centres », and with host communities where they have since remained. With no realistic option to return, due to the threat of renewed volcanic activity, the displaced had no choice to but try to integrate locally. However, as the years went by, with the displaced population growing from 10’000 to nearly 15’000, tensions with host communities around land issues and a gradual deterioration of living conditions in the camps led the government to recognise that the situation was not sustainable and that an alternative settlement option had to be found.

Protection risks faced by IDPs in the camps

Immediately following their displacement at the end of 2004, the displaced were provided with relief and assistance from humanitarian organisations and the government. However, this only lasted a few months and soon assistance dried up while conditions in the camps started to deteriorate. Visiting the camps in 2009, a United Nations team warned that most IDPs had only very limited access to water, food and shelter but also education, health care. In addition to the precarious conditions in the camps, the displaced were also at risk of violence due tensions with host communities over land and resources, which sometimes erupted into conflict. Threats of physical attacks were reported to seriously limit freedom of movement in the camps with some displaced women and girls suffering from sexual violence and discrimination.

manam islanders PNG 2014 -jaded
Displaced woman from Manam island, PNG, 2014. Frederik Kok

When I visited the Manam care centres 5 years later, in 2014, very little had changed. The displaced still  lacked access to basic services, including adequate housing, health care, education and food. The land was infertile and in short supply for the growing displaced population. While some owned livestock and were able to fish but it was barely enough to survive. Most houses were in need of repair or reconstruction and relations with the locals were tense. Inadequate conditions in the camps as well as clashes with the mainlanders had led thousands to return to their home island, sometimes encouraged by the local government. They moved back despite the lack of arable land, the absence of government services and warnings from disaster authorities that it was not safe to return.

Obstacles to resettlement

Acknowledging that return to Manam island was not a viable option and that local integration would be challenging, the government announced in 2006 that the displaced would be relocated to a new area. A  7,000 hectares patch of of land was identified in Andarum, located further inland (around 50 km from Bogia). However, land issues, lack of funds, corruption, poor leadership and an absence of political will proved major obstacles to the project. A preliminary agreement on land acquisition between the Madang provincial government and the landowners in Andarum was reached in 2013. The government provided PGK3 million (US$1.7 million), with an additional PGK3 million planned for 2014. However, according to the relocation project manager I met during my visit, larger amounts were required for the project to even begin.

Another problem at the time was the lack of a legal foundation for the project. A bill, the “Manam Restoration Authority Act”, introduced by the Madang governor in 2013, was finally adopted in April 2016 but since then not much has happened. A PGK10 million fund was promised in 2017 to support the resettlement project, but despite renewed promises by government officials in early 2018 renewing, the funds have yet to be made available. In the meantime, the Manam islanders remain in protracted displacement with little hopes of finding durable solutions.