Manus Island Regional Processing Centre.
(Source: Flickr/DIAC Images)
As soon as Australia’s Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced his own version of a “stop the boats” plan, a number of conservative politicians from his home state claimed that such a move could spark an influx of refugees into Queensland.
They’ve persistently argued that it’s just a “hop, skip and a jump” from Papua New Guinea to Queensland.
That’s stretching the truth more than a little – and on more than one front.
Let’s start with some simple geography. One would be forgiven for thinking these politicians skipped even their rudimentary mapping classes during their schooling.
Under Rudd’s scheme, asylum seekers would supposedly be sent to facilities to be upgraded on Manus Island for initial assessment of their claims for refugee status and then resettled elsewhere in PNG if successful.
Manus Island is part of the Bismarck Archipelago that lies to the north-east of the PNG mainland.
To its south is the Bismarck Sea and to its north the South Pacific Ocean.
Let’s be clear: Manus Island is nowhere near the border between Queensland and Papua New Guinea.
They allege that, once granted refugee status, great numbers of these displaced persons would somehow flood over the narrow Torres Strait into Australia’s far north, specifically into Queensland.
What a profoundly nonsensical notion.
This border between the two nations is almost 1000 kilometres to the south-west of Manus Island in the Torres Strait.
Map shows Manus Island to the north and Daru Island in the south.
Source: Google Maps
On the PNG side of this border is Daru Island, which does have an airport.
Nearby, on the Queensland side of the border, is Saibai Island. It is more than 900km in a south-easterly direction until you get to Cairns, with few settlements of any size in between.
The isolated, northern-most point of the Queensland mainland is some 150km to the south of the PNG mainland.
Daru Island is located on the southern edge of PNG’s impoverished Western Province. With no bridge to the PNG mainland, it is accessible only by air or by boat.
Granted, from time to time, the “porous” border in this area has given rise to serious health concerns, both on Queensland’s northern-most islands and its mainland.
The risk is mostly due to the free, legal (under the Torres Strait Treaty) and frequent movement of a quite small number of PNG locals back and forth across the strait’s islands for traditional purposes.
Manus Island, on the other hand, is some 800+km to the north-east of Daru Island, as the crow flies, and that’s several hundred kilometres beyond even the northern shores of PNG’s mainland.
To give you some idea of the effort it would take to get from one location to the other, take a look at the likely fastest mode: A 19hr 20min trip by two different airlines from Momote Airport on Manus Island to the Daru Island Airport, with stopovers in Lae and in the PNG capital of Port Moresby.
Port Moresby itself is a 50-minute flight to Daru Island. There is no road access between the two centres. Nor is there any alternative overland access to allow travellers to reach the portion of the mainland’s south coast that is closest to Daru Island itself.
In fact, the main road west out of Port Moresby along the Gulf of Papua finishes well over 300km to the east of Daru, in the adjacent sparsely populated province of Kerema.
This leaves the remote, swampy – and in other parts heavily forested – Western Province cut off from any roads connecting to Port Moresby by multiple deltas that spill into the Gulf. In fact, PNG’s southwest coastline is home to one of the world’s largest swamps.
There isn’t even road access from this sparsely populated southern coastal area of the Western Province to the north, to the more densely populated Highlands region.
Coupled with that, PNG has a greater number of different languages spoken than any other similar area on the globe, more than 836 of them, so communication is likely to be especially difficult.
Then the wet season makes any travel especially tricky, not to mention its consequences: Heavy weather, deadly landslides, impassable roads or tracks and flooded lowlands.
Should you opt instead to travel by boat from Manus Island to Daru Island, your sea journey would likely be around 2000km by the shortest possible route: South through the Bismarck Sea, down past New Britain Island, around the south-eastern tip of the PNG mainland and west across the Coral Sea.
Or you could instead head west from Manus Island through the South Pacific Ocean, round the north-western tip of the mainland, then hug the coastline of the Indonesian province of West Papua, navigate into the Ceram Sea and then into the Arafura Sea before heading east until you reached Daru Island. But this would lengthen your sea journey to 3600km.
Either way, your boat may have to dodge the odd cyclone or two for a large part of the year because tropical PNG endures its north-west monsoon season from December to March and a south-east monsoon season from May to October.
While PNG’s Western Province – of which Daru is the provincial capital – is the nation’s largest in area, in terms of population it sits at just 18th of the country’s 22 provinces, with only around 152,000 residents.
There are pretty obvious reasons for that: The region is largely inaccessible overland, even when it’s not soaking wet; it’s somewhat inhospitable geographically; it’s significantly underserviced in terms of infrastructure and everyday services; and, thus, is rather unsuited for habitation or, for that matter, traversing.
Even if refugees were desperate to cross the few kilometres between Daru Island and Queensland’s Torres Strait islands, getting to the closest crossing point would be far more difficult.
Finding someone with a tinnie or canoe willing to take you across the often turbulent waters would be a challenge.
And then it’s a bloody long walk from the tip of mainland Queensland to civilisation.
Just don’t expect, it seems, to hear any of this from a partisan politician’s lips in the run up to a hotly contested federal election.
They’re too busy dog-whistling and assuming the voting public are a bunch of ill-informed fools.
Words: Trina McLellan