Manus Island’s refugee babies: Q&A with Father Clement Taulam

Children fathered by refugees on Manus Island could be marginalised by patrilineal clan structures, says Father Taulam.

Father Clement Taulam - Manus Island
Catholic priest Father Clement Taulam has worked across the Asia-Pacific for the past 37 years [credit ASRC/MartinWurt]

Manus Island, Papua New Guinea – For people in Papua New Guinea (PNG), land is life. It carries great spiritual and cultural significance and is a vital resource for food and shelter. Arguably, it is the most valuable asset for local communities. 

More than 97 percent of land in PNG is owned by families or clans, and it cannot be sold or purchased. Instead, it is inherited through patrilineal lines – meaning it’s passed down through the males in a family. While matrilineal communities do exist in PNG, women are generally adopted into their husband’s clan after marriage.

But what happens to children whose father has no access to ancestral land or property rights? 

On PNG’s small, remote Manus Island, at least 36 children have been born to Manusian women, but were fathered by refugees, according to Lorengau hospital records.


About 600 male refugees and asylum seekers remain in legal limbo on Manus after an Australian-run immigration detention centre was deemed illegal by PNG’s Supreme Court. It was subsequently shut down in 2017.

Under a strict policy designed to deter unauthorised boat arrivals, the Australian government has refused to take any of the men to Australia.

More than 80 men have been resettled in the United States. The others have no choice but to wait until they are accepted by a third country – a process that has been painstakingly slow.

Father Clement Taulam is the parish priest of the Papitalai Catholic Church on Los Negros Island and has worked across the region for the past 37 years.

He spoke to Al Jazeera about the impact the refugees had on the local community and the small island’s long history of accepting outsiders.

Al Jazeera: Do you remember when the refugees came to Manus Island? 

Father Clement Taulam: I have been here on Manus since the refugees came. There have been two big rounds of outsiders coming to Manus Island. The first group were people from West Papua – that’s on the other side of the border of Papua New Guinea – during the 1970s.

The second group are these men. Lots from Iran, Pakistan, from Sri Lanka, Sudan, Bengali, Somali. They’re all here. If you walk around town, you will notice them right away because there are so many of them.


Al Jazeera: Are they accepted in the community?

Father Taulam: Yes. Manus people know the situation of refugees because they themselves have been refugees. First, during World War II, they were displaced off their land. The second time has been due to the high-rising sea levels.

So you will find many people with a ‘receiving’ mentality because they were displaced and they received a lot of things. So the memory stays with them.

Al Jazeera: The Australian-run detention camp was closed last year. Where are the refugees now?

Father Taulam: In Lorengau town. The town is quite small. In the province itself, we have maybe about 60,000 inhabitants.


There are three camps. One is for those who have been processed and are known as refugees. Out of those, only about 96 have been processed and gone to the United States.

Most of the refugees – about 600 of them – are still here in Papua New Guinea.

About 140 of them are in Port Moresby for medical reasons, mainly mental health. About 150 have still not been processed. So a lot of refugees are frustrated because the process is taking a very long time.

Al Jazeera: Do you see them in the community?

Father Taulam: Often they do come out to visit us – especially the church groups.

We take them and we try to help them in their situation. But basically they are kept together in the camps, and they are waiting for any country to accept them.

Al Jazeera: What do you think will happen?

Father Taulam:The way I look at it, PNG is being a scapegoat for this thing. 

Australia seems to be saying, ‘PNG, this is your responsibility.’ And PNG is saying to Australia, ‘Do your work, clean up your mess.’ And while this is going on, these people are suffering.

We’ve had incidents of refugees being diffused into communities before – especially through marriage – and this might end up the same if PNG does not find a country for them.

We are not helped especially by the Australians. They are the ones who have put the refugees here to keep them offshore.

Father Clement Taulam says the local community on Manus tries to help refugees and asylum seekers stuck on the island [ASRC/MartinWurt]Father Clement Taulam says the local community on Manus tries to help refugees and asylum seekers stuck on the island [ASRC/MartinWurt]

Al Jazeera: Were Manusians involved in the decision to bring asylum seekers to PNG?

Father Taulam: In the beginning, it was only discussed with the leaders of this country and Australia. And we accepted it. Our government accepted it.

In the 1990s, the refugees had come here before, and they eventually went to Australia and to other countries. And Australia processed them.

But this time, Australia doesn’t want them, so they are left here with us in PNG.

We don’t understand why. We only know Australia wants to keep them out. For us in Manus, we want them to be settled well.

Al Jazeera: What is the impact on the community?

I think we are feeling their presence in the province. They are putting a strain on the local economy. But – at the same time – they are coming into town and helping by buying things from the market with their allowance.

However, there is something else. We have data from the local hospital saying that 36 babies have been born to our women here on Manus over the past five years. They are already like refugees on Manus because they will not have anywhere to settle.

Al Jazeera: Why can’t they just settle with their clan?


Father Taulam: Our land system is not like other countries where land is owned by the government and people can settle anywhere.

For people in Papua New Guinea, land is life. Here on Manus, land is handed down through the fathers or the men. In other communities in PNG, it’s handed down through the women.

So if one of these refugees gets married to a woman from a matrilineal clan, then they could be settled. But in most parts of PNG, land is patrilineal. So it’s going to be difficult for them.

Their father is not from here, they don’t have any land, so the only way for them is if their father stays in town and does a bit of trading.

The children might be able to settle with the mother’s clan line. But usually this is very difficult. When people are married, it is a common practice that the woman has to follow the husband.

So when the husband is from another country, it becomes difficult. The children will have difficulties in the future when it comes to settling down.

So these 36 babies are already starting a new wave of refugees on Manus.

Al Jazeera: What’s the biggest misconception about Manus?

Father Taulam: Manusian people are very good people and are quite welcoming to the refugees. They greet them on the street, talk with them. They try to help them, especially with language problems. So the attitude is quite friendly. Drunk stuff happens sometimes … and a story will blow up.

Sometimes the world paints a bad picture of Manus people. They say the island is like hell for these people – but when you come to it, not really. We feel for them and want the best for them.

But I think it’s now a waiting game.

Source: Al Jazeera

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