Migrant Settlements and Criminal Images in Port Moresby

Port Moresby’s first few settlements grew quietly in the first decade after World War II, in the absence of an administration department to take responsibility for the ‘squatter’ phenomenon, which accompanied the lifting of earlier colonial restrictions on indigenous urban migration. The colonial administrative response shifted from tolerance, recognising that settlements solved worker housing problems in the employment boom of postwar reconstruction, to hostility, fearing the growth of a migrant lumpenproletariat. Kerema settlements, according to Ryan, were at one point denied water supplies and garbage and sanitary services in an attempt to discourage the migrants. By the 1970s, however, the administration had come to accept settlements as part of the urban landscape and some of them (including Ranuguri) underwent official upgrading programs involving the provision of paved footpaths and other basic infrastructure, under the impetus of new self-help policies that became institutionalised by the late 1970s. In contemporary Port Moresby, the term ‘squatter settlement’ is used very loosely to refer to habitats that range from collections of completely illegal makeshift shelters hidden behind industrial buildings to relatively well-planned blocks of houses of varying standards of construction on customary land by arrangement with landowners, or on blocks leased from city authorities.

While they are officially tolerated, and house a large proportion of Port Moresby’s population, employed and unemployed, settlements have become populist targets of blame not only for law and order problems, but for a variety of issues such as disease scares, visible squalor and the frustration of landowners’ schemes for commercial development. They are vulnerable to violent police raids in particular, under a rhetoric that says that unemployed migrants are responsible for street crime of all kinds and that urban raskol gangs are a product of squatter settlements. Periodically, these various complaints coagulate into calls for the destruction of ‘squatter settlements’ and the repatriation of the inhabitants to their putative home villages. Occasional destruction of squatter settlements has occurred in Papua New Guinea in recent years, most famously in Rabaul, East New Britain, in 1994, when more than 2,000 people were forcibly evicted, and in Madang in 2003, where an attempted settlement eviction exercise was aborted in chaos. But no national policy on squatters has been systematically implemented and, in Port Moresby, plans to move specific communities of squatters out of the city area and into satellite areas have had little impact on the settlement phenomenon in general.

The most common complaints about settlements are made in respect of concerns about law and order. Particular settlements have local reputations for violence — often derived from intra-settlement
altercations between the different micro-ethnic groups that share a limited habitat — or for housing criminal gangs. The identification of raskol gangs with specific settlements is a simplistic interpretation of an extremely complicated and fluid situation, but it has been perpetuated in the popular media, and the resulting stigma of violent criminality is particularly distressing for settlement-dwellers. This is partly because it invites ill-informed and misdirected police raids to arrest young people. But, in addition, preemptive raids on selected settlements before major public events and elections are a common police strategy, confiscating weapons (including guns, but mostly bows and arrows, which are available at tourist shops and from street vendors) and alleged weapons (knives, lengths of pipe, hammers, etc) and ‘stolen property’ (usually electrical goods for which no sales receipt can be produced). The damage to dwellings and the rough handling of inhabitants is indiscriminate during these raids and victimises the settlements’ occupants as a community: the resulting publicity reinforces the stigma of settlements in general and of a small group of chronically targeted settlements in particular.

The settlements of Gulf district migrants established in the first few years after World War II have remained relatively free of this attention. Street crime and heists in the downtown area are generally attributed (not necessarily correctly) to specific raskol gangs from micro-ethnically mixed settlements two or three miles distant. The claims that Ranuguri was a law-abiding community were unsolicited and were intended as a contrast with ‘other’ settlements. I heard similar claims in several of the less publicised settlements, reflecting a concern by the residents to distance themselves from the reputation that some communities have for lawlessness and for violent crime in particular. The downtown settlements had experienced a degree of administration hostility in an earlier period, but this was based on a simple fear of their unpredictable growth rate and on the economically dominant white community’s apprehension of their imagined criminogenic nature. As time passed, Ranuguri, among others, displayed no threatening tendencies. Newer settlements, peopled by more recent and micro-ethnically diverse migrant groups and growing at a faster rate as movement into towns from many parts of the country increased, became the alternative focus of concern not only for Europeans but for the indigenous inhabitants of the Port Moresby area.

There is little reported crime in Ranuguri, and relatively few cases are heard in the Konedobu Village Court from the downtown settlements it serves. The ‘tribal’ groupings within the settlement are spatially ordered and cohabit relatively peacefully. As ‘Keremas’, they present a united front to outsiders. Disputes that come to court are mostly family squabbles or neighbourly friction and are often settled between the disputants before the case is fully dealt with (that is, cases are adjourned after an initial appearance of the disputants by summons, but never reappear in court proceedings). Many more disputes, classified as threatening or insulting behaviour or slander, are settled by mediation and never arrive in court. The number of cases involving physical violence or injury is low and the violence involved is mostly familial. Ranuguri has no reputation for raskols or lawlessness, and does not suffer the police raids that are a fairly regular event in a number of other settlements.

Sorcery, however, is an activity that could conceivably bring notoriety to Ranuguri settlement if it were reported with any frequency. The colonial administration classified sorcery as a crime even though it did not believe in the phenomenon, but sorcery was seen in the colonial era as a problem of rural administration, linked in European perception to ignorance, superstition and primitive sociality. Moreover, the social tensions and potential violence associated with sorcery beliefs were seen to be confined to relations among indigenes. Europeans were impervious to sorcery and in the towns they feared familiar forms of physical violence far more than the vagaries of customary belief systems. Sorcery in postwar urban settlements, such as that alluded to by Ryan, was not troublesome to colonial authorities because whatever violence may have been generated was not visibly disruptive or threatening to the urban community at large. Oram cites a claim by the colonial administration in 1968 that some of its archaic Native Regulations, including those concerning sorcery, were retained through a contemporary period of change ‘at the express wish of the indigenous people’. Considering the range of indigenous groups in Papua New Guinea, this is an ambiguous clause: neverthless, sorcery remained an important force among Melanesians at the end of the colonial era, while the administration’s concern about it was considerably less than it had been in earlier times.

In contemporary Papua New Guinea, cases of sorcery are occasionally reported in newspapers when a death occurs. In the more notorious of Port Moresby’s settlements sorcery threats and accusations are not uncommon, but the media reportage that fuels commonsense concerns about crime is preoccupied with more tangible forms of violence. As a result, public discussion of sorcery in these communities attracts little attention, compared with group violence and the implied presence of raskol gangs. Ranuguri, however, a settlement of people identified with a region in which sorcery is traditionally seen as especially prevalent, has no reputation for either group violence or criminal gang activity. In the absence of these, a reputation as the dwelling place of sorcerers would have greater potential in the view of the settlers to generate public concern and attract unwanted attention from the media and the police. Another researcher, Katayoun Rad-Hassall, who visited Konedobu Village Court early in 1996, related to me an interaction with the chairperson of the court, who had recently vacated her position due to ill health, which medical authorities were finding difficult to diagnose. In the first instance, the woman described her ailment as ‘customary sickness’. Rad-Hassall asked whether she was referring to sorcery. To this explicit reference, the woman replied, ‘Yes, sorcery.’ Her initial avoidance of the word sorcery might seem insignificant, but it manifests, I think, a conditioned caution in the presence of outsiders. Among themselves, Ranuguri’s residents might openly refer to sorcery, but in circumstances where their internal affairs might come under official or public scrutiny, such as Village Court hearings that must be recorded, a veil of discretion is drawn.

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