Far away, so close! Australia & PNG's Torres Strait border
Updated: Feb 18
When I catch my local train I can hop off 15 minutes later at Sydney’s Town Hall Station. From Saibai Island at the very top of the Torres Strait, a dinghy trip of similar duration will see me arriving in Sidabadu village, on the shores of Papua New Guinea’s South Fly district.
As Australians we think of our country as a remote island continent. It is hard to appreciate that for some of us another country is just a short commute away. Our northernmost islands lie just over our international sea border but are absolutely part of Australia, governed by Australian law, populated by Australian citizens and serviced by Australia Post.
It’s a part of the world that we seldom think about, but one that has recently featured in news about Chinese ambitions to build fishing facilities 70km from Saibai on the Papua New Guinean island of Daru. The prospect of Chinese activity so close to Australia is certainly something to take seriously, but other issues in this border region may warrant our more immediate attention.
At Peacifica we are taking some time to better understand this part of the world and the dynamics at play. Even without increased Chinese activity there are factors that have the potential to drive conflict. But this border area also offers opportunities for positive change. This is only a first look – there is so much more to learn about our northern border.
Culture, connection and inequality
It is no surprise that there are close family and cultural ties between the Torres Strait and PNG’s South Fly district which go back far beyond the existence of our modern states. Today, some movement across the strait between ‘treaty villages’ to ‘carry on their traditional way of life’ is usually allowed under the Torres Strait Treaty. In recent years this movement has mainly comprised people from the South Fly villages travelling to access the better quality services available on the islands, reflecting the inequality that has developed between the two areas. This inequality is an inversion of the situation at PNG’s independence in 1975, when the Torres Strait Islanders lacked access to the levels of services or support available to their wantoks in PNG. Today, while not wealthy by Australian standards, the Torres Strait Islanders now find themselves to be considerably better off than their northern cousins, many of whom now lack access even to that most fundamental of needs, clean water.
As described in the excellent 2020 book Too Close to Ignore, the enforcement of the Torres Strait Treaty has become more stringent. This culminated last year in the hard closure of the border by Australia as part of its COVID-19 containment. Police, Border Force and Defence cooperated to close the border and reportedly continue to strictly enforce it. The effects of this closure may take various forms, as they impact on family relationships, cultural practices, economic activity and access to services. This is likely to have a particular impact on those standing on PNG’s shore.
Demographic shift and resource competition
South Fly sits below the Fly River and downstream from the Ok Tedi mine. One consequence of this is that there has over time been a steady movement of people from upstream to the coast, and increased competition for resources. The CSIRO reports that this increased population has led to returns from fishing in treaty waters not keeping pace with the increased numbers of people earning a living from the sea. There are signs of overfishing of some species as the population increase and trade with nearby Indonesia add pressure. Meanwhile, while the South Fly coastal population continues to grow, there is at this stage little indication of people moving further south into the Torres Strait.
Climate and environment
As with the whole of the Fly River system, the communities at and around the mouth of the river live with the consequences of the 1980s Ok Tedi mine tailings disaster, and any effects of its continued operation. The mine is a mixed blessing for PNG’s Western Province overall, as the province is today a shareholder in the mine. However while the province’s financial status is relatively good, this has not led to any significant investment in needed services on the ground.
Meanwhile the impacts of climate change are affecting the lives of both coastal Papua New Guineans and Torres Strait Islanders through the tidal changes, ocean acidification, storm surges and new weather patterns that are impacting the Pacific islands. These will impact health and livelihoods and may create pressures for people on both sides of the border to move.
Far away from (almost) anywhere
The Torres Strait Treaty zone is remote. Roads do not exist on the PNG mainland. Daru, the largest town on the PNG side, is 400km across the water from Port Moresby. Saibai is 140km from Thursday Island (pop (2011): 2600), and 730km from Cooktown (population (2016): 2034). Western Province is one of PNG’s most remote and underserviced regions. The physical difficulty of establishing services there has been compounded by neglect.
However, it’s not remote from everywhere. 180 km west from Saibai lies the border with West Papua, governed by Indonesia. Merauke (population in 2010: 87000) is less than 300km around the coast from Saibai and Sidabadu and has long been a significant player in the Treaty area’s economy, especially for those on the PNG side. High value seafood products find their way to Asian markets through trade with Merauke. The whole border between the two halves of New Guinea island is porous.
The region is remote for Australia, for PNG and for Indonesia. But of the three, it is Indonesia that has invested the most in the area. That investment is of course tied up with the Indonesian government’s assertion of control over West Papua. That struggle is another potential driver of tensions in its near neighbour.
Negative flows and risks
The region, especially on the PNG side, has a number of pressing problems. ASPI reports that “Daru in the Torres Strait is believed to be a hot spot for the smuggling of drugs, arms and people to and from Australia and Indonesia.” Daru is also affected by a fearsome strain of multidrug-resistant tuberculosis. Australia’s aid program and security services are actively responding to both, going some way to explaining Australia’s strengthened border control regime in the area. Illegal fishing is another concern in the area, and another area where Australia is investing in new monitoring technologies to track illegal fishing and other movements.
Australia and PNG have arguably lost sight of our shared border for many years, beyond seeing it as a weak border to be controlled. But borders paradoxically are often locations of contact and exchange. Cross border differences create dynamics of supply and demand as much as they create tensions. These demands can be met through legal or illicit exchanges, or else their suppression can exacerbate tensions and entrench inequalities. The restriction and closure of the Australia-PNG border appears to be more along the latter lines. For those in South Fly, trade and other exchanges across the porous West Papua border may now be their easiest and most rewarding path. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this relationship with Indonesia - as the largest local population centre it makes sense. But the southern barrier creates distortions that are not likely to be helpful.
The announcement of possible Chinese investment is merely another confounding factor in a dynamic landscape. One way or another some level of Chinese investment is probably inevitable. That investment need not be a bad thing, but the chances of it becoming a problem will be greater if Australia and PNG (and indeed Indonesia) don’t take advantage of one simple fact: we are already there. We need to take our one real border seriously, for all the challenge and opportunity that it represents. Some work has been done, as Australia is enhancing its aid activities in the area. But if we want that northern commute to be a driver of local prosperity and security, it is not nearly enough.
An excellent read on this issue is the devpolicy.org blog commenting on the findings of Too Close to Ignore.