Dr Bryce Edwards
New Zealand could increase the refugee quota from 750 per year to about 60,000. That would put us in line with Sweden’s efforts. We could even just increase it to about 56,000 to put us in line with how many refugees Germany took last year. But as Murdoch Stephens, spokesperson for the Doing Our Bit campaign, says “No-one argues we should match the Swedes and increase our quota 80-fold”, and he just wants the quota doubled to 1500 – see his opinion piece, Refugee quota boost 'less than bare minimum.
Instead of an increase to 60,000, or even just 1500, the Government has decided this week on a figure of 1000 per year. Why not more? In Stephens’ article, he suggests that National Government politicians are too removed from the realities of the refugee crisis, and he challenges them to visit a refugee camp where they would see the lives that could be saved and improved if New Zealand increased the quota.
Stephens argues that National politicians aren’t willing to save more refugees because they “have the luxury of never having to meet any of the people we could have offered protection to but chose not to. I hope the thought passes through their minds, just once, over the coming months when they see more drowned children wash up on Europe's shores, that perhaps one person, on one of those boats, would have been referred to resettle to our small country in the South Pacific.”
Similarly, refugee advocate Tracey Barnett sarcastically asks, “What's a few more years watching more children dying in Aleppo or drowning on their way to Lampedusa? As long as they don't start washing up in Wellington harbour, we're sweet” – see her hard-hitting opinion piece, How to pretend to care.
The reality of more lives being saved by New Zealand accepting more refugees is batted away by many politicians, who claim the problem is just too big, and New Zealand is simply too small to make enough of a difference. The Minister of Immigration Michael Woodhouse uses the metaphor of our efforts being a drop in the ocean, saying: "The question is, should we put one drop in the ocean, or two? ...We'll take one drop at a time” – you can watch his five-minute interview/interrogation with Paul Henry – see: Woodhouse on refugees: One drop at a time enough.
Paul Henry seems rather angry with the National Government’s decision. And in an equally interesting interview on the matter with Patrick Gower, Henry is exasperated: "They're just playing with numbers. Bastards!" – see: Government slightly increase refugee quota, Ministers front up at housing meeting.
Henry is not the only one. In fact it’s hard to find any commentators, newspaper editorials or politicians willing to endorse the Government’s choice of just 1000 refugees.
Two newspaper editorials have strongly condemned it. The Dominion Post is particularly hard-hitting, labelling National's refugee policy “ a stain on our reputation” and “mean-spirited” – see: National's decision on refugees is mean-spirited and callous. The newspaper suggests that the Government had a duty and option to do much more, but it simply didn’t want to do so: “The other political parties have outbid him – even ACT wants to do the decent thing. Meanwhile the world's greatest refugee crisis since World War II continues to explode all around us. In this hour of desperate need, the Government responds by doing the minimum.”
Likewise, the New Zealand Herald says the current quota is “disgracefully low” on top of which National has delivered a “miserable increase” – see: Pathetic lift in refugee quota needs rethink.
New Zealand Amnesty International is also disheartened by the tiny increase. Its chief executive Grant Bayldon said: “This is a shameful and inhumane response and a stain on our country's reputation as a good global citizen” – see Stacey Kirk’s New Zealand refugee quota upped to 1000 – 'stinks of a Government that doesn't care', say advocates.
A majority in favour of change
The above news article also quotes other party leaders condemning the decision, including United Future’s Peter Dunne saying the new quota was "miserly".
And for more on other political parties favouring some sort of increased quota, see Isaac Davison’s Broad support to raise refugee quota.
The fact that so many other political parties are in favour of a much greater increase is emphasised by Amnesty’s Grant Bayldon: “I struggle to think of another time when this has happened – every other political party, from ACT to NZ First to the Greens and everyone in between, has firmly supported an increase. The political path was clear in a way that it wouldn't have been for any other government. It didn't need to spend any political capital on this one; heck, even the young Nats publically called the Government out on it” – see: Refugee crisis requires stronger NZ response.
Bayldon says that the quota decision puts to rest the notion of New Zealand as “a principled country which punches above its weight internationally.” Instead, the country’s “international profile starts to look like nothing more than a cynical branding exercise.”
And Duncan Garner has also pondered New Zealand’s real role in the world: “We like to think we are the caring nation, don’t we? We are the good guys of the world – the honest broker. We care for human rights more than others, right? That’s a nonsense actually. So I’m just going to come out and say it – I’m embarrassed that we don’t take more refugees” – see: We must take more refugees.
National’s calculated pragmatic decision
While there seems to be a consensus amongst commentators and political activists in favour of increasing the refugee quota, could the same be said for the wider public? The debate has become highly polarised, and as pointed out in a column one year ago - Why won't New Zealand accept more refugees? - there’s a more populist and reactionary mood amongst the general public that sees refugees as a problem – or at least, someone else’s problem.
The National Government has clearly been caught between the two sides of this polarised debate, and has gone for a decision that it hopes will cause only limited negative reaction from both sides. As Winston Peters says, it’s a decision that "will end up pleasing no one" and that’s because, as Isaac Davison reports, the Government choose the middle option: “Mr Woodhouse said raising the quota from 750 to 1500 places was one of three options presented to Cabinet as part of its regular review of the quota. The other options were raising it to 1000 places - which the Cabinet supported - or not changing it at all. "We've landed in the right place in my view," Mr Woodhouse said” – see: Govt considered doubling quota.
Newshub political editor Patrick Gower is candid about the extreme cynicism involved in National’s decision: “Yes it was tokenism, yes it was miserly, yes it was quite meagre, and deliberately so. But it’s smart politics as well. They’ve given that symbolic gesture essentially of taking it to that nice round number of 1000… and that’s just enough to satiate middle New Zealand”
Sceptics can clearly see the influence of public opinion polling in the National’s decision. Giovanni Tiso blogs: “as always you can see the calculation made by National. Not increasing the quota would have been scarcely thinkable. A modest increase plays both to the prevailing, soft anti-immigration rhetoric – which the opposition in other areas cheerfully goes along with – and to the government’s attempts to portray itself above all as pragmatic. We cannot afford to be too compassionate” – see: National values.
Likewise, Michael Timmins emphasises the amount of market research that would have occurred behind the scenes and says, “It is a token gesture designed to mollify proponents for more resettlement and to be able to tell the general population that the government is ‘doing something’.” – see: The Refugee Quota Compromise.
And campaigner Murdoch Stephens complains that the number of 1000 lacks robust justification: “Where’s the justification for this round number? There is no justification because this is not a government that works on justifications. It is a government that works on opinion polls and a “prudence” that too often amounts in reality to callousness” – see: NZ’s response to the humanitarian crisis of the century puts shallow prudence above people and principle. He argues that the quota decision “reeks of a government bereft of ideas and ambition, and more willing to see refugees as a problem than as people.”
Then again, is a figure of 1500 any less of a round number? And perhaps the ambitions for a quota increase have been so modest that people’s horizons have been lowered. Instead of battling for 60,000 refugees, or whatever, the debate has been very conservative in its demand for an increase. After all, even the Greens have only been campaigning for an increase in the quota to 1000, with a private members bill to achieve this. Therefore the National Government has simply met the demands of critics on this issue.
So perhaps those campaigning for an increase need to be setting their targets higher. In fact, RadioLive’s Alison Mau says Forget doubling the refugee quota, we should triple or quadruple it.
And to put our quota in perspective, Murdoch Stephens points out that “Sweden received 160,000 asylum applications last year. Germany had 1.1 million applications” – see: NZ’s response to the humanitarian crisis of the century puts shallow prudence above people and principle.
Finally, why are New Zealanders against saving more lives during this time of a global refugee crisis? Could it be that many believe some of the misinformation about refugees? They might benefit from Murdoch Stephens’ article, Five biggest myths about the refugee quota debate. Or is it that the country doesn’t care much about others anymore? – see Guy Williams’ When did New Zealand become selfish?