History of Papua New Guinea Immigration and Development

Immigration trends in Papua New Guinea were the results of different people who visited, lived and worked and called Papua New Guinea home. Papua New Guinea’s history after 1975 Independence showed that people arriving in PNG (Immigrants) were skilled and knowledgeable people.

The other group of temporary immigrants were the new university graduates looking to gain experiences and experience PNG. They contributed significantly to developing the country.

This article discusses six (6) groups of immigrants who are the driving forces for development in the post and pre-independence periods. The groups were (are) influential even to this day actively creating jobs and providing training for locals.

Here is a recollection of the development phases in Papua New Guinea. It discusses the 6 main Actors and how they influence the development trends in PNG since the 1960s.

History of Papua New Guinea local migrant workers

The History of Papua New Guinea revealed the early stages of development. The missionaries making the first contact, teasing people with salt and introducing to them Good News.

The Tultuls and Luluais encouraging people to use digging sticks to build roads or getting people together for patrol officer’s visits. The able-bodied men went to work at the Bougainville Copper Mine.

Highlanders and Sepiks recruited to go to the New Britain provinces to plant cocoa, coconut or oil palm.

Other stories included companies like the Dillingham Brothers building roads through the inaccessible highlands provinces. The gaining of independence.

In fact, Papua New Guineans were the driving force of developments in the early years. Foreign companies and expat workers were facilitating the developments.

The history of Papua New Guinea also showed that the first migrant workers set the pace for the early infrastructure, mining and agricultural developments.

Early contractors and missionaries

The Australia and New Zealand contractors (like the Transat Contractor and Paragon) build roads into places like Okapa in the Eastern Highlands and Gumini-Salt Nomane in Simbu provinces and other parts of the country.

Many people in the Highlands tribes of Papua New Guinea will know the two gentlemen, the late Alan (owner of Transat) and Garry (owner of Paragon). The likes of Alan and Garry arrived in Papua New Guinea and stayed on to maintain (and expand) the roads in all the highlands.

Note: Alan married a woman from Gena in Simbu Province. Their children are Neil, Ayana and Ian. If by any chance they read this, rest assured that your dad contributed massively in developing access roads in the 5 Highlands provinces in PNG.

The expat contractors and sub-contractors employed national workers, including several senior Philippino tradesmen who have had a significant influence on PNG apprentices.

Driving force for early developments PNG’s History

The missionaries who came into the country played a great part in the development in the history of Papua New Guinea too. The missionaries worked with the locals. Education for many locals was no further than Grade 6, then. But they learned from the Phillipinos and missionaries by observing and doing.

The expatriate workers, contractors and missionaries were a massive part in the history of Papua New Guinea’s development.

Perhaps it is important to know that the early migrants focus was developing PNG. Meanwhile, sharing their expertise and skills with locals.

Opportunities vs development

The skilled and opportunity-seeking migrants entered the country as contractors and entrepreneurs. They were, probably, well educated and experienced people who saw untapped opportunities in PNG. Their aim was business rather than developing Papua New Guinea and its people.

I guess the idea shared here is to give meaning to immigration (the movement of outsiders into Papua New Guinea) and the impact they were (are) having on the people.

The observation illustrated four phases of immigration:

  • Missionaries and development – a period of social development and inclusion.
  • Early in-country migration – early migration caused by the pull of early Agriculture and Mining developments.
  • The immigrating contractor, entrepreneur and missionary expats – a group of immigrants entering Papua New Guinea around the independence period for economic, social and religious reasons.
  • Immigration and economic opportunism – recent short-term immigrants with business interests.

The latter group is predominantly business minded. And they are from certain ethnicities. Mostly the Chinese, Philipinos, Malaysians, Bangladeshis and Indians. Semi-skilled individuals (or groups of them) running *reserved* businesses in the towns and cities.

Key lessons immigration taught

I’ll put in perspective. Insofar as providing services, employing and educating Papua New Guineans is concerned, immigration influenced development. The question is can immigration be a force for development in Papua New Guinea?

Missionaries – Good News, health and education

Spreading the stories in the Old and New Testaments was the missionaries’ main goal. But, there was a need to learn local languages when the missionaries entered the remote tribal locations in PNG.

Learning local languages was (and is) challenging. With over 830 languages almost every village has a distinct language.

To overcome the challenge, the missionaries either learned several languages at the same time or introduced a new language – so, there was a need for introducing basic education. To enable the population to read the Bible.

Undoubtedly, that was the birth of modern education. Missionaries built many schools in Papua New Guinea to spread the Good News and educate people.

Key point: Educating Papua New Guineans is the biggest development in the History of Papua New Guinea.

Further reading on education policies and development trends in the embedded link.

Apparently, infant mortality and death due to infections would have been high then, as it is now. Many denominations, in addition to their primary role of spreading the love of God, would have seen it as their other responsibility to provide needed health care.

Key point: Health care is the other significant development missions and missionaries have brought to the country.

Today, many Papua New Guineans have relied heavily on education and health services provided by missions of different denominations. Church, Lutheran Church, Seventh Day Adventist, New Tribes Mission, United Church and Baptist Church are main providers of services.

Their vision is to faithfully spread the word of God. In doing so, they continue to provide the much-needed health, education and humanitarian services in places where government services are completely lacking today.

History of colonial administration and agriculture

This group of people have long gone. Their era only remains in the memory of many. Remains of the period in the coffee plantations in the highlands to cocoa and copra plantations in the coastal areas.

One of the lessons we could learn was the heightened interest in agriculture. It is important to note that apart from many things going on, the colonial era was also a time when huge portions of land have been developed for agricultural purposes.

Key point: A significant milestone in agricultural shift in the country from subsistence gardening to crop for cash happened.

Educators, Health Workers, Planters and Contractors

The early seventies could be described as a period of human resource and physical-infrastructural development. Many Papua New Guineans went to universities. Others continued onto trade courses, secretarial studies, seminaries and other colleges.

PNG’s human resource growth was, to some extent, at par with developments that had been happening at that time.

There were lots of foreign contractors in the resource sector. Others were involved with infrastructure development around the country. Some of them worked in road constructions, partnering with the National Department of Works (NDoW). They cut roads into areas never accessible by road vehicles in the past.

Key point: It was a great time for both human resource and national development in the early History of Papua New Guinea. Focus was on developing the country rather than on monitary gains.

In-country Immigrants

One group of Papua New Guineans remained the forgotten generation to this day. Many of them have settled in new places. These were the volunteers from the Highlands and Sepik provinces who were enlisted for oil palm developments in West New Britain.

Enviously, that was also a time when Kina was strong against Dollar. You could buy Ox and Palm for just K1.00, or a carton of beer for K10, or a Wopa biscuit or packet of cigarette for just 20 toea! People were not paid a lot, but what they earned bought them a lot more than today with some to save. It was a real buzz.

During that time, there was a pocket of expatriates, especially Australians who took PNG at heart. They were the ones who had (have) lived here calling PNG home. From missionaries to government officers, educators and health workers. They loved PNG. Many of their children and grandchildren are Papua New Guineans. PNG is home.

Entrepreneurs vs economic growth

The country’s purse was not empty in the late eighties and early nineties. Money from natural resources and minerals, especially gold and copper from developed mines like the then Panguna, OK Tedi, Pogera, Misima, Lihir and other mines in the country had replenished the purse every year.

Tax revenue had increased as more developments took place in the extractive industries.

Eventually, many outsiders saw the opportunities available in the country. There was a wave of temporary immigrants who came into PNG: setting up law firms, companies, medical hospitals, logging companies, retail shops, hotels, etc.

Many of them can speak fluent Tok Pisin. They mingle easily with the people. They also call PNG home. But, they came for business – one leg in, the other out. The eighties/nineties entries we very successful individuals.

Key point: They contributed massively to developing PNG and creating PNG jobs.

Opportunity Seekers vs local skill development

This group of immigrants came recently when the country saw unprecedented growth in its economy. Money circulating within the country was a pull factor for the outsiders to make quick bucks.

The oil and gas developments were a clear example of unsustainable (and short-term) job creation. The jobs were available during the development phase of the LNG project, but for a little while. And, the local jobs were completely gone when the Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) project went into full production.

The infrastructure developments happening since 2013 is another development where job and skill transfer was lacking. The Chinese companies with big contracts brought in Chinese workers who took up the opportunities otherwise would have been available to Papua New Guineans. Unlike the development around the Independence era, this immigration wasn’t about development.

Key point: It was purely business, self-enrichment and it happened quickly. No transfer of skills or job opportunities were made available to locals.

Perhaps, this movement was more organised than the others. What happened was that well-established business preferred to use their own workforce.

By this, I mean these companies were employing their own kind, placing them in jobs that could be easily done by Papua New Guineans. Obviously, the 12-doors chain of stores and Lot 60 in Lae and Port Moresby and other parts of the country were a typical example of economic opportunism.

Future of PNG Immigration – the 2020s

Temporary settlers

The immigrating population in PNG may refer to foreign nationals looking to Australia and New Zealand as their destinations. The bureaucracy may not have allowed them to get into the intended countries.

Many possibly have families and friends living there which makes it more attractive destinations from the outside.

They remained in PNG taking up job making PNG a temporary transit home. In hindsight, time is of the essence before they would steal the opportunity to make it to their Promised Land.

Refugees on Manus Island

The Manus Island Immigrants Detention Centre created by the Australian Government is an immigration burden to PNG. In fact, PNG would be happy for Australia to whatever it wants with them.

The detention adds to social development issues on the island. The immigrant children born to local women faced an uncertain future.

The big question going forward is what is going to happen to the immigrants on Manus Island? What about the children they are having with the local women on Manus?

Will Australia take responsibility of the children who are born to the immigrants on Manus as Australian citizens? They cannot be left stateless. The social implications on the lives of the refugees and their children are the results of the policy decision by the Australian government.

The boat was diverted to Manus Island. The question is when is it going to arrive at its destination.

Refocusing immigration on development

The recent immigration pattern is completely distorted. The temporary migrants and Manus Refugees do not have any bearing on the development of the country. Not long term benefits at all!

PNG history showed us that immigration and development worked well in the past when the intention is for developing the country.

Perhaps it is important PNG recognises immigration as a driver for development. Immigration patterns have been left unchecked for a long time. As a developing country, immigration must be for development.

Here is where a line can be drawn: many outsiders have contributed, within their capacity, to impart the skills and knowledge to young Papua New Guineans. In turn, they are (were) making a living, bettering themselves and contributing to the national development. Benefits are mutual.

Developing PNG workforce is vital. Recent immigration in PNG is about making money – economic opportunism. It appears that when immigrants concentrate their businesses among themselves and their wantoks, there are less training and jobs for ordinary Papua New Guineans.

As indicated earlier, PNG history showed us that immigration and development worked well in the past when the intention was the greater good of Papua New Guinea.


At this juncture, the opinions on the history of immigration in PNG showed that immigration had a positive impact on PNG’s economic, social, spiritual and infrastructure developments.

The immigration around independence period saw development as the major pull factor for immigration.

In recent years economic opportunism was the main driver for immigration in PNG. There needs to be a regulation to control such immigration that does not mutually benefit the country.

Manus Island immigration is a special circumstance. It deals with a group of immigrants wanting to move into Australia illegally.

The history of Papua New Guinea’s immigration and development is clear. Immigration directly affects PNG holistic developments as revealed in the history of PNG.

Key summary: It is important Papua New Guinea recognise immigration as a driver for development. Immigration patterns have been left unchecked for a long time. As for this developing country, immigration must be for development. Nothing else!

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