Volcano displaced still in limbo

The government of Papua New Guinea has put on hold plans to return thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) to their homes on the northern island of Manam.

“The provincial administration has cancelled this decision. For now, the islanders will remain in the care centres,” Ben Lande, deputy provincial administrator for Madang, told IRIN on 5 May.

The last minute decision follows a week of speculation as to how or when such a plan would be implemented.

Around 14,000 islanders have been living in three care centres in the mainland province of Madang since November 2004, after a devastating volcano forced them to leave their homes on the island, which lies 30km off the mainland.

The decision to begin returning residents was taken following heightened tensions between islanders and local residents (they speak the same language), largely over land issues.

With little to no assistance, many of the IDPs rely on local gardening as their only source of food and livelihood - meaning they often encroach on nearby land.

In March 2010, the National Executive Council (NEC) approved the establishment of the Manam Task Force Committee to manage the needs of the displaced islanders, with the primary goal of finding a suitable location for their permanent relocation.

However, as tensions escalated, officials began looking quickly for another temporary measure, with provincial authorities announcing that the IDPs would be given the option to return to their island.

“These are voluntary repatriation activities,” Lande said immediately after the initial plan was announced at the end of April. “There is no force involved; those in the care centres are being given a choice to be repatriated back to Manam.”

Photo: David Swanson/IRIN
Access to land around the care centres has resulted in increased tensions between local residents and the IDPs

But with the latest decision now putting those plans on hold indefinitely, many believe this could well prove an opportunity to address the long-term needs and plight of these people more effectively.

[See also IRIN's film on the resettlement of a Filipino community displaced by volcanic eruption]

“Complicated problem”

“It’s encouraging that there is national attention on the issue again, and the government has devoted some new resources,” Jock Paul, an official from the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told IRIN in Port Moresby.

“It remains a very complicated problem, and more work and commitment will be needed to resolve the complicated issues around land, so that the islanders have a permanent place to resettle,” he said.

According to Pius Ikuma, the acting director of the Madang Provincial Disaster Office, the decision to halt last month’s plan was based on the islanders themselves deciding not to go back to Manam, and hopes that the NEC task force would be able to find a suitable, permanent location for the islanders.

“We are urging the task force to find a permanent solution soon,” Ikuma said.

Meanwhile, an activist involved in the islanders’ case said plans to even consider moving people back to Manam at this point were totally inappropriate.

“That island is completely inhospitable; people could not cope there, he said, adding that the task force needed to act now.

“These people need to know now that they will be relocated somewhere safe and permanent. They are quickly losing hope. They need a light at the end of this tunnel and a return to Manam is not an option,” he said.

A July 2009 assessment by the National Disaster Centre, the UN and Oxfam concluded that living on the island was not a viable option because of a lack of access to arable land and public services, and the risk of further volcanic activity.