Bryce Edwards’ Political Roundup: Why won’t New Zealand save more refugees?

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Dr Bryce Edwards.

Political Roundup by Dr Bryce Edwards

Dr Bryce Edwards.
Dr Bryce Edwards.

Should New Zealand accept more refugees? This is an especially important question in the lead up to World Refugee Day (tomorrow) and in the midst of an escalating global crisis for those fleeing their homes due to war and other disasters. 

New Zealand is a heartless country and a bad global citizen. There’s really no other conclusion to be drawn from the pitifully low number of refugees allowed into this country. A disdain for refugees can be seen in the response to TVNZ’s Pippa Wetzell advocating for New Zealand to increase our refugee numbers – see her one-minute plea: Pippa’s view: We need to up our refugee quota. The response on the Seven Sharp Facebook Page has been ferocious. I’ve collated and commented on some of these responses in my own blog post, Do Seven Sharp viewers agree with Pippa on refugees? And now, Wetzell has responded to the debate with Pippa’s view: While we may not agree, at least celebrate a robust debate.

Seven Sharp also broadcast an excellent five-minute item by Gill Higgins on the story of an Afghani refugee who made it to Australia on a small boat via people smugglers – see: “We’re whistling and waving lifejackets to get attention but nothing helped”.

Standing up for the vulnerable of the world

The latest attempt by asylum seekers to get to New Zealand involved a banner held aloft: “Please try to understand our painful life New Zealand Government and save our life. Please”.  

So why don’t we listen and act? Rachel Smalley says that fortunate citizens of the world such as New Zealanders are at the top of the wealth pyramid and choose not to help those in crisis: “it’s important, I think, to remember to look down from time to time.  Why is it that we fear extending a hand to some who are displaced, or destitute, or facing persecution?  Why is it, as Kiwis, we are so fearful of looking down the pyramid?  It’s something I ask myself all the time – and I still don’t know the answer“ – see: Amnesty’s damning report

Smalley bemoans that “we like to think of asylum seekers as faceless, nameless people who, somehow, aren’t as human as we are or as deserving of life, people whose lives are somehow worth less than ours. A child asylum seeker is less deserving it seems than a western child.  In New Zealand, increasingly, I think we chose to de-humanise the situation. If we take the humanity out of it, we’re less likely to emotionally connect with it, or feel compassion, or feel compelled to help”.

In a column last month, Smalley also discusses why New Zealanders have an irrational fear of refugees: “But here’s the thing.  There is nothing frightening about a refugee, nothing at all.  But there is everything to fear about an ignorant and xenophobic society which increasingly shuts the door on humanity” – see: Nothing frightening about a refugee

Today Smalley writes about World Refugee Day, and sheds some light on the humanitarians who work with refugees – “the extraordinary people who do everything they can to sustain life when dictators and regimes go to war”.

Columnist and author Tracey Barnett says we should be ashamed of ourselves: ““No one, including New Zealand, was willing to look in the mirror. Maybe that’s because the truth is, our own reflection isn’t terribly pretty. As families risk their lives at sea rather than die in the war that has engulfed them, New Zealand has quietly just shrugged. It’s not our crisis. It’s so far away.  We’re missing the boat entirely. We are every bit a part of the problem. New Zealand has very quietly closed the door to refugees from long-term neglect.  Our miniscule UNHCR refugee quota has been stalled for an incredible 28 years now. Even though we’ve grown in population over those three decades by almost 40 percent, our per capita commitment to refugees has shrunk into microscopic size. Indeed, the only time our annual quota changed was to drop by 50 places in 1997.  We like to believe our own clichés; we’re decent world citizens who punch above our weight. But that’s not what the numbers say” – see: Look in the Mirror, New Zealand.

Barnett has a series of very good one-minute videos on Youtube that address misconceptions about refugees: Can New Zealand Get a Refugee Boat Arrival?Define a refugee, an asylum seeker and an economic migrant?Are boat arrivals really jumping the UN queue? Barnett also runs the Wage Peace Facebook page

Let in more refugees

Should we take in more of the world’s destitute and displaced? Despite the disdain expressed by some for refugees, there’s actually some momentum for change at the moment, largely spearheaded by the Doing Our Bit lobby group led by Murdoch Stephens. See, also, the Doing Our Bit Facebook page. Today the group is drawing attention to the latest United Nations report Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2014, which shows that in per capita terms, New Zealand is now ranked at 90th in the world. They say we need to at least double our intake.

Other NGOs are pushing strongly for a substantial increase. Today the executive director of Amnesty International, Grant Bayldon has come out to complain that “In the face of the largest number of refugees worldwide since World War 2, New Zealand hasn’t increased its refugee quota in almost 30 years” – see: Time overdue for NZ to increase refugee intake

Unusually for the New Zealand Red Cross, it too has entered the political realm to argue today for the Government to double our quota – see the Herald’s Government to consider more refugees. Retired Anglican bishop John Bluck has also argued that “allowing in 750 refugees a year is ludicrously low” – see his column, Welcoming strangers has never been more urgent

The momentum for an increase can also be seen an array of newspaper editorials. For example both the Herald and the Dominion Post have both published two editorials each calling for an increase. In its editorial, Pitiful refugee quota will no longer cut it, the Herald says “Next month, this country assumes the presidency of the UN Security Council. As such, it should be setting an example to the international community, not least on humanitarian issues”.

A second Herald editorial, Modest refugee intake should be much higher, deals with the economic costs of accepting more refugees, and declares “this would be more than offset by the benefits. New Zealand’s experience with refugees has, by and large, been positive.  Refugees tend to be particularly keen to contribute to the country that has taken them in. There can be no doubt that New Zealand has the capability to accept more”.

The quota should be doubled according to the Dominion Post editorial, Clear signals needed over people trafficking, which also points out that “Our current refugee intake is much more miserly than Australia’s”. A second editorial, New Zealand should take more refugees is even stronger, and admonishes the Government for its various arguments against increasing the quota. It concludes: “We could have a refugee policy which was a source of pride rather than shame”.

See also, the Otago Daily Times editorial, Accepting more refugees, which points out that “New Zealand has a long tradition of helping, from Jewish refugees in the 1930s, Poles in the 1940s and many thousands after World War 2”, but that this has now reversed.

Perhaps the best opinion piece on the issue is Brian Rudman’s Helping a few more refugees the least we can do. He complains that even the current quota of 750 refugees is often not filled each year. He says there is nothing to fear from increasing the quota: “Given that last year, New Zealand issued resident visas to 44,008 migrants, doubling the annual refugee quota to 1500 hardly seems a threat to the New Zealand way of life.  As a country totally peopled by migrants all seeking a better life, our present policy does seem very selfish”.

Politicians dragging the chain

Despite the momentum to increase New Zealand’s refugee quota, politicians are making all sorts of excuses not to do so. The arguments are best seen in Radio New Zealand’s article, Key says refugee quota is at right level. The Prime Minister says: “But if you look at the scale of the issue – because it is a very significant issue – if we were to go back to our original target and go up from 750 to 850, or go from 750 to 1000, it’s hard to believe that’s going to resolve the issue because we’re talking about millions of people”. 

The responses to Key’s arguments are reported in Nicholas Jones’ article, Plea to increase refugee numbers, which quotes Salil Shetty, Amnesty International’s global secretary-general. He says “It won’t change everything if the quota goes from 750 to 1500, but it all adds up. For those 750 extra people who are resettled it makes a world of difference … they are not drops in the ocean, they are real human beings with families”.

Amnesty International are fighting to ensure that countries like Lebanon continue to allow refugees to enter, but Shetty says: “They had a million people coming into the country … how will we ask the Lebanese Prime Minister to not shut their boundaries if we can’t say that New Zealand is even going to take 750 people more?”

National’s other main argument is that we should focus on “quality not quantity”, making sure that the current intake of refugees are properly looked after before letting in more. This is something of an absurd argument according to former MP Keith Locke, who says: “Are we really such a miserly society that we can’t improve the lot of refugees here and increase the quota at the same time?” – see: Boatpeople need our help, not our fear

For more on the Government’s stance, see Brent Edwards’ Govt gets scant advice on refugee quota. This includes Sue Moroney’s allegation that with Government cuts to the refugee budget, even the current quota will be hard to fill. 

National-aligned blogger David Farrar also writes on the quota numbers, saying: “I am sympathetic to calls for a modest increase in our quota. Maybe have it as a proportion of our population, so it rises a bit over time. But this is not a good time to increase it” – see: Devoy on Refugees.

But it’s not just National dragging its feet. The Labour Party, too, has presided over the same tiny quota, and every time it gets into power it rejects calls for an increase. Now in opposition again, Labour says it would increase the numbers, but not by much. According to Jo Moir “Labour Party leader Andrew Little told TVNZ’s Breakfast the Government should lift the refugee quota to 1000, if not more” – see: Call for Government to lift refugee quota

Other opposition parties are no better. The Greens have made an announcement this week – see Newswire’s Greens draft Bill to increase refugee quota. But the meagre increase by the Greens is to 1000 a year, which is almost an endorsement of the current settings rather than any sort of challenge or meaningful alternative. 

New Zealand First is also being lauded for advocating an increase to the quota – see Nicholas Jones’ Dame Susan Devoy backs Winston Peters on refugee numbers. Yet it has to be pointed out that the party’s support is contingent on cuts in immigration elsewhere. Furthermore, it’s a moderation of New Zealand First’s earlier policy (in the 1990s) of tripling refugee numbers. And, as David Farrar points out, Peters actually has a more significant history of attacking refugees – see: Peters flip-flops on refugees

Is New Zealand complicit in the Australian people smuggler pay-off controversy?

Last week a boat of asylum seekers who were apparently bound for New Zealand were intercepted by Australian authorities, who allegedly paid their people-smuggling hosts to take them elsewhere. The latest on the alleged Australian government bribery can be read in the Guardian article by Shalailah Medhora: People smugglers paid by Australian spy, Indonesia police documents allege

Given the boat was headed to New Zealand, this has raised questions about New Zealand’s potential involvement, or stance, on what happened. There has been condemnation of the Australian actions by newspapers here – see the Herald editorial, Abbott’s boat people policy morally bereft and the Dominion Post’s Clear signals needed over people trafficking. The latter editorial acknowledges that John Key says he had no knowledge of the payments, but says: He needs to go further and rule out any New Zealand involvement with them”. 

Others have called for New Zealand to distance itself from such payments to people smugglers, and for a more independent policy on asylum seekers. But Michael Timmins argues this isn’t likely: “this government is not interested. Refugees don’t buy a lot of milk powder” – see: Paying off the people smugglers

Timmins also says the latest incident raises questions about New Zealand’s potential part in what happened last week. Similarly, Keith Locke argues that New Zealand is involved – see: NZ should have no truck with Abbott’s bribery. He asks “whether the Australian navy is under instructions from the New Zealand government to intercept any such boat and send it back to Indonesia”.  

Finally, since it’s World Refugee Day tomorrow, it’s worth looking at how existing refugees are settling into New Zealand. Today the Herald has published an interesting profile: Settlers grateful for safer lives and careers in New Zealand. And for more extensive updates of what refugees – including some of the “Tampa Boys” – are doing in the community see Stacey Knott’s excellent series of articles: Getting to grips with an alien cultureFuture built on father’s sacrificeRefugees show resilience in a new land, and Former refugees in memory mode

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Dr Bryce Edwards is a political scientist and a lecturer in Politics.

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