By Emma Clarke

Central Police Station, Port Vila
Central Police Station, Port Vila

Hidden behind the cruise liner docks, the paper flower leis and abundance of bars, Vanuatu’s Port Vila has a shadow under its sun.

Outside on the streets, masses of mostly-Australian tourists mingle with locals in a potentially potent combination as a rapidly increasing crime rate has resources stretched to their limits and police severely concerned.

“I am sorry to tell you that we don’t have enough resources to deal with what is happening now,” says Constable Indiana Menes at the central city police station in Vanuatu.


The Constable works in Crime Prevention and says a combination of modern criminal law and traditional values can make or break the safety of the island nation. The city, Port Vila, sees people from different island cultures of Vanuatu blend together in a search for employment, where customary laws can clash with the pressure to get by.

Yet in many cases traditional island chiefs are responsible for punishing cultural or criminal law breakers in hand with police.

“If there is some street crime, and when we find out who is an offender or suspect, we go back to the community where they belong, and we ask people if they want to report on this person,” Constable Menes says.

“Sometimes we will report to the chief in the village.

“When that happens, the local community leaders have their by-laws, or may levy a fine, which people will accept.

“If it continues to happen then the chief comes to the police, and this works very well.”

That traditionalist approach is a brake on the crime rate which despite that has increased and is continuing to grow, with a greater incidence of violence against women in the home, sexual assault, common assault, shop-lifting, and in a new trend, more break and entry, the charge of Illegal Entry.

Social conditions are causing dislocation among rural communities and increased crime rates. Combined with weak resources, traditional methods of peace keeping are proving not enough, and the police are handicapped.

At the policy think-tank in Port Vila, the Pacific Institute of Pubic Policy, the Communications Director Ben Bohane says traditional methods of retribution and peace keeping make an essential addition to modern policing.

“Melanesia has some interesting customary dealings with conflict. In the past, pigs, mats and kava were traded as reconciliation and similar values are prominent today. In Vanuatu, customary laws have such a big part in evolution and are highly respected for keeping peace,” he says.

“Law makers and courts recognise customary values during the criminal law decision making process. There is a fine balance between the two and they don’t always work parallel but often do together.

“In this sense, the South Pacific is seen as a systematic world model in peace keeping.”

Statistics for crimes with victims have doubled in Port Vila, between 2000 and 2006, in a period when the city’s population, already steeply rising after independence in 1980, really began to expand. Port Vila, with close to 50 000 people, had just 30 000 at the turn of the century.

Constable Menes says the trend has not eased up since that initial growth period, when the incidence of violence and street crime went from 4000 to 2000 cases each year in Port Vila. It continued through into 2014, and is still increasing.

“We have sexual assault cases in Port Vila maybe four times a week, and cases of assault at least that much, sometimes more,” she says.

As in many developing countries, there is an ‘urban drift’, or a relocation to the capital city from rural villages, especially among young people.

“People can go to primary school in the country, but the high schools are in town, so they come here,” says Constable Menes.

“They may live with family members, but at the more advanced levels the fees get high, and if their families cannot afford to pay, they go back home.

“When they turn 18 they can return to the city, but they cannot find work because they have not completed their education, and so many will get into trouble.”

When young men start living with people from different island groups, not with their own family or members of their own island community, the chance of crime increases as youth are not under the guidance of traditional cultural chiefs.

“Most if they go to town move in with people from their own island and they are alright, but if they go with people from other islands all together, then they are no longer afraid of the chief, and that is where they meet other youths, other people, and they start to commit crimes,” Constable Menes says.

“They break into other people’s homes and things like that.

“They may see someone with an expensive mobile phone and they want it, so they steal it.”

Marijuana plants growing wild in Port Vila are fuelling the crime-fire and youth in particular are abusing the drug, and selling it.

“Some use it to make money and others for its effects but both are a big problem,” Menes says.

The urban drift is a point made forcefully, as well, by the News Editor at the Port Vila’s Vanuatu Daily Post, Royson Willie.

“In Port Vila it is important for people not to forget where they came from,” he says.

“Youth who get into mixed groups, from the different islands, do not have the same controls as in their home areas.

“Like any other youth in the world, their well-being is linked to what happens to them, and so we get issues like violence towards women, assault, and issues related to rape.

“Police try their best to do their job, but they are faced with a lack of funding to carry out their operations.

“The range of crime has now extended to breaking into houses and other properties, and there is more of that.”

He says the news media try to assist as well, his own paper running a page for women that gives information on such issues as sexual assault.

The Constable is pinning hopes on preventive work, either patrols on the block, or community work, letting people know what is happening with crime and getting their help.

One police officer says, “Our problem is that at the moment we are limited doing patrols. If we have complaints, we just make some calls, but then we are still under resourced, with not enough phone credit, and sometimes may have to call on our own phones.”

The Port Vila Police Station is severely under-resourced.  Photo: Jane Mahoney
Going astray in the city can lead to a hard place. Photo: Jane Mahoney


“The police are frustrated.

“We cannot go a long way if we do not have fuel at the police station for the vehicles. When we get calls, for some of them we just have to stay where we are because we do not have fuel.

“There are supposed to be regular patrols at night, but at most the patrol will only go out once.

“It is not a good thing.”

Sometimes somebody offers to pay for fuel for the police, which allows them to go out.

Police cars sitting idle in the Port Vila Station car park.  Photo: Jane Mahoney
Police cars in the Port Vila Station car park; all ready to move?
Photo: Jane Mahoney

It works that way also with the community visits, where the police get assistance from civil society groups like Save the Children, which will ask them to come along when they go out to communities. There is also assistance coming through from police forces outside the country, including Australian police.

One such program of crime prevention took place during June, where the police went out to talk to communities, most of which had asked if they would visit.

“When we talk to people about a crime they say they have not wanted to call the police, because they do not want to end up in court, or in custody,” Constable Menes says.

“Sometimes domestic violence isn’t reported because people don’t know its against the law. But when police visit communities they are more aware of their rights and more willing to report crimes.

“With violence towards women in villages at least the chiefs help us a lot. They look after domestic violence. If there is an argument over domestic issues, or bride price paid, the chief will settle it. If it gets out of hand and somebody is badly injured, then that is when people call the police. The chiefs may call the police.”

The South Pacific’s own UN type organisation, the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG), based in Port Vila, brings social issues into government agendas.

It notes the facts and statistics, particularly surrounding concerns about violence against women, which have been taken up by the larger international body, the Pacific Islands Forum.

However Jimmy Naouna, the  New Caledonia delegate to the Spearhead Group, nominated by the independence movement the FLNKS, says a crime problem in Vanuatu is not the chief concern of the MSG.

“Seventy percent of the Vanuatu population lives in rural communities which are supported by cultural laws,” he says.

“Of course violence against women is a concern but it can happen anywhere. New Zealand and Australia have violence against women issues too so it’s not exclusive to Vanuatu.”

One point of relief is that, unlike other countries such as Papua New Guinea or the United States, there is not a high incidence of gun crime.

Firearms laws are strong and enforced. Where somebody may keep a gun for purposes like hunting, there will be prosecutions and a stiff penalty for misusing firearms.

For the thousands of people freely and unguardedly moving about in Port Vila, which takes on the aspect of a holiday city most of the time, there is a growing danger, so far mostly out of sight, and out of mind.

There is none of the besieged preparedness of daily life so obvious in a city like Port Moresby, where crime began to take a hold some decades ago, and has been very hard to push back.

The good will of the village communities and their extensions into the city has been holding the line, while police in Vanuatu would like more help, more funding and more resources to keep it that way.