Editorial: Take it on board

by The Listener / 14 February, 2013
We cannot ignore our humanitarian responsibilities to refugees.

When, in 2002, the Labour Government agreed to take 150 of the Australia-bound Afghan refugees rescued by the Norwegian ship Tampa, the gesture was generally well-received domestically as evidence of this country’s big heart.

Yet now that a National Government has offered to take 150 of Australia’s future boat people, the reaction has been considerably less warm-hearted.

What’s changed? Both the appetite for political rhetoric, and the nature of Australia’s struggle with boat people and people-smuggling.

New Zealanders have certainly been slower this time to accept the Government’s explanation of why New Zealand needs to play a fuller part in working toward a regional solution to the escalation of people-smuggling. For that scepticism, Prime Minister John Key must take much of the blame. He framed the new policy squarely in terms of our need to keep in good with our larger neighbour. In pointing out that New Zealand will always need Australia more than Australia needs us, Key portrayed us as the ever-pandering supplicant in the relationship.

What Key failed to make clear was that Australia has been trying to forge a regional approach to both refugee settlement in general, and boat people in particular. And what neither country can, with any tact, spell out is that the settlement of refugees from our region is generally more successful than settlement of people from more distant places such as Somalia and Rwanda.

Boat people typically resettle successfully here. They have well-established communities to settle into and are, as shown by their desperation in boarding death-trap boats, highly motivated. The brutal fact is we get a better outcome from accepting fugitive Timorese or Chinese than we do from taking in often permanently war-traumatised Africans.

The Government will deny that this is a direct consideration, but it is a fact. It could easily have opted to take the 150 in addition to our existing 750-a-year quota, rather than as a part of it. Criticism that the Government has arbitrarily displaced other deserving refugees in favour of boat people is justified.

However, the overarching difficulty is how to decide which refugees are more deserving. Even those who have paid people-smugglers can be genuine refugees, fleeing for their lives. There are countries where life is so terrible, most of the population could qualify for refugee status on humanitarian grounds.

The motivation for a pragmatic “regional approach” – however euphemistic the term – has been spurred by the knock-on effect of Australia’s tougher attitude towards accepting boat people. Intelligence gleaned by both countries indicates people-smugglers are increasingly eyeing New Zealand as a softer destination. It’s impossible to know how reliable this information is, but it can’t be ignored.

What’s also undeniable is that for obvious geographical reasons, Australia does most of the heavy lifting when it comes to deterring and driving off people smugglers. It has also – often deservedly – copped most of the international flak for the miserable limbo into which “successful” boat people are placed, in internment camps on Nauru and in Papua New Guinea. There is no such thing as a happy refugee camp. Although the inhabitants usually enjoy better basic living conditions and certainly more security, than in their homelands, their stay can last years, and the uncertainty over their futures is soul-destroying. New Zealand has, by dint of being just that much more remote by sea, been able to let Australia have this political minefield all to itself.

In the end, it’s hard to argue that we should not give Australia more of a hand in settling these refugees – particularly if we want to press Australia, as we should, to moderate the often harsh way it treats its refugee applicants.

Certainly, both governments could dispel much of the scepticism around these issues by overtly promoting a Southeast Asian framework for refugee processing, which would over time deprive the people-smugglers of their trade. They might also be more honest about the practical limits and outcomes of refugee resettlement.

But as we found when forced to nightly watch the plight of the Tampa people on our TV screens, it’s hard to pick and choose among the desperate. The day a boatload of half-dead men, women and children does land on these shores asking for help, who among us will be flinty enough to say, “Queue-jumpers!”?
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