Australia won't accept our refugee offer – so we must help those we can

by The Listener / 23 November, 2017
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Children and other Rohingya have fled to refugee camps. Photo/Getty Images

As the stalemate sets in over New Zealand’s offer to help Australia’s offshore asylum seekers, it’s time to shift focus. We’ve tried. We’ve failed. Australia doesn’t want our help with its troubled and troublesome detainees in Papua New Guinea and on Nauru. The emergency aid and resettlement we’re offering should now be rapidly refocused on the appallingly persecuted Rohingya of Myanmar, described by the United Nations as “probably the most friendless people in the world”.

Repressed for decades, these Muslims have recently been subjected to what may be the bloodiest ethnic cleansing crusade of modern history. Although half a million have fled the former Burma, there are perhaps another half million, including orphans, left in a living hell. Let’s help protect as many as we can from torture, rape and massacre, and leave Australia to guard its own reputation.

It’s fair criticism that our Government was showboating over Australia’s latest Manus Island crisis. But Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was not just scratching a domestic political itch. Many New Zealanders are deeply uncomfortable with Australia’s treatment of illegal entrants, and tactful silences have achieved nothing. Yes, those people arrived through people-trafficking, which Australia rightly strives to discourage with its hard-nosed offshore-impounding policy. But, whatever their status, asylum seekers don’t deserve to be mistreated.

It’s not clear that they’re safe in their new purpose-built settlements in PNG – or indeed that unhappy locals are safe from some of them. We are far from the only critics of this situation. The UN says although about 400 of the 2100 held in PNG and Nauru have been found not to be genuine refugees, Australia should nevertheless keep them all safe, and hold itself to a higher human-rights standard than that which the deteriorating situation on Manus Island betrays. Violent incidents and evidence of suffering in detention camps over several years suggest humanitarianism has too often been trumped by a domestic political appetite to punish illegals.

Rohingya refugees seek shelter in Bangladesh. Photo/Getty Images

Rohingya refugees seek shelter in Bangladesh. Photo/Getty Images

New Zealand rightly deplores this, but has now made its point. We have been told in increasingly blunt terms – not least back-channel reports designed to wrong-foot our Government – that Australia does not appreciate our interference. It may never accept our offer to take 150 of the men. Canberra’s fears that the refugees could enter Australia after gaining New Zealand citizenship could easily be allayed by endorsing their passports; however this, too, has tricky human-rights implications. Even that pragmatic offer, originally made by the Key Government, finds little favour in Canberra.

Up to 1250 of the refugees may be resettled in the US under a deal negotiated by President Barack Obama – although given President Donald Trump’s antipathy, this may never eventuate. Most are at least free to settle in PNG.

Whatever happens is out of our hands. We must hope Ardern’s subsequent, and possibly ill-advised, offer of $3 million towards the asylum seekers’ upkeep does not aggravate Australian resentment of our modest regional defence contribution.

Rohingya children. Photo/Getty Images

Australia is boosting its defence spend by more than 80% in the next decade, with a quarter going to its navy. As the retaliatory diplomatic reports highlighted, it may not be just people-trafficking boats headed to Australia that this expenditure intercepts. It’s alleged Australia stopped four boatloads destined for New Zealand. As logistically far-fetched as this seems, Australia is obliged, by geographical necessity, to do most of the heavy lifting against people-trafficking in our region, and we benefit – as do any refugees rescued from drowning. It also accepts 22,000 genuine refugees a year to our 1000. Yes, it’s a vastly bigger country, able to absorb more people. But it’s entitled to its perspective that on this issue, New Zealand freeloads.

It will understandably contrast Ardern’s forthright forays with both Key’s original, tactfully couched offer to take some of the detainees and Helen Clark’s similarly non-judgmental offer to take Tampa refugees during that turbulent political crisis for Australia. It may also note that Ardern said nothing publicly about the human-rights nightmare in Myanmar at Apec, where she sat next to State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi at dinner.

To demonstrate, then, that we are not simply grandstanding about Australia, we need to rule a line under this, and put our money and hospitality at the disposal of another, even more deserving group. Australia’s asylum seekers have options. The Rohingya families do not.

This editorial was first published in the December 2, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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