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Papua New Guinea – Deserving of its fearsome reputation?


“You have got secure transport confirmed from the airport, right?”

The message was from my manager, Hugh, and it was the second time he had double – and now triple – checked this. We were talking about Lae, Papua New Guinea’s second largest city, where I was due to fly the next day. 

As an International Data Researcher (IDR) here at ECA, I am often required to visit countries where crime and security are an issue, often enough that it is now routine and doesn’t typically worry me. In the last two years, for example, I have visited Nigeria, Pakistan and Chad, all countries where there are serious risks of terrorism or kidnapping. 

Nonetheless, the question left me feeling a rare hint of anxiety. Logically, I knew that I had researched this trip just like any other and made appropriate plans to minimise the security risks. If a location were genuinely too dangerous, I would not be going there.

I was already in Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea, which consistently ranks towards the bottom in ECA's annual Location Ratings Survey. Port Moresby is notorious for high levels of violent crime conducted by the brutal raskol gangs, strikingly documented by photographer Stephen Dupont

The word raskol derives from the English ‘rascal’ but has none of the connotations of playful mischief that an English speaker might imagine – in the local Tok Pisin language it simply means ‘criminal’, and their crimes range from small scale theft through to murder and rape. The gang violence developed in the 1970s as squatter settlements grew around the city, where many people continue to live in extreme poverty, rarely able to find formal employment. 

The level of violent crime means most expatriates in the city live in secure compounds and limit their activities to certain areas. For the purposes of my research, I spent most of my time in these pockets of relative calm, seeing little evidence of Port Moresby’s fearsome reputation. However, the impression I had from my colleagues was that this would not be the case in my next destination: Lae.

On arrival at Lae airport, I was collected by an imposing vehicle with metal grills covering every window, complete with two armed security guards in addition to the driver. This is the most substantial security setup I have ever had and part of me wondered if it was excessive, but the risk is very real. There have been numerous incidents of criminals setting up roadblocks to attack vehicles travelling along the 40km road between the airport and the city. 

Lae is a small city and many of the outlets I needed to visit were within walking distance of my hotel, but walking alone as a foreign visitor is considered unsafe so I had arranged a driver for the entirety of my short stay. Most vehicles used by expats or business visitors are large armoured 4x4s.

I was glad to feel secure but viewing the city primarily through a barred window was frustrating. One of the most enjoyable parts of my job is walking around a new place to get a feel for it, experiencing something of the local atmosphere, which was near impossible in these circumstances. Every person I encountered in both cities was friendly and helpful, but just knowing that you are in a dangerous place, it is hard not to see people as potentially threatening, to be withdrawn rather than open, to see menacing intentions where there are none.

For expats living in Papua New Guinea there are not only practical concerns and expenses involved in staying safe, but the challenge of dealing with this mindset, and the less measurable toll it can take on your quality of life whilst living in the area.  

In fact, what I saw of Lae was unremarkable: it looked run-down in places, with some evident poverty, but I experienced no hostility and saw no sign of trouble, as hard as my brain was working to imagine some. At the end of the trip I felt slightly underwhelmed, almost disappointed that my adventure had been rather tame, even a little boring. Of course, when it comes to security, ‘boring’ is the best result; indeed, the only acceptable result of sensible planning.

Towards the end of my time in Lae, I took a short walk with my driver and, under his watchful eye, took some photographs. As a visitor I am often conscious that this can be intrusive and unwelcome, but I was pleasantly surprised to find locals here were not only curious and friendly but pleased to have the chance to pose for a photograph, laughing and joking as they did so. For a few minutes at least, the barrier between us was lifted.

Does your company have expatriates in Papua New Guinea?

Expats moving to either city would expect to receive a location allowance to reflect the difficulty of adapting to life in such a challenging environment. My colleague Anni Keranen recently discussed this in her Mobility Basics blog on the subject, which explains how ECA’s Location Allowance Calculator uses several measures to determine an appropriate location allowance. Both Port Moresby and Lae score very highly on the Personal Security measure, but when considering the full set of measures there are differences between them. 

Lae has two good supermarkets but, beyond that, services available to expats are very limited. By comparison, Port Moresby has high-quality international schools, some options for sports and social clubs, and a handful of upmarket restaurants and cafes that would not be out of place in London or New York. The cumulative effect of these and many other considerations is reflected in the Location Ratings scores for each city. 

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