Political Roundup: NZ is part of the refugee problem
Is New Zealand part of the refugee problem or the solution? For decades New Zealand has been a willing participant in wars and interventions in the Middle East, which have been central in causing the current refugee crisis. Why, then, does this country continue to refuse to play a tiny part in responding to the crisis we helped create?
Rather than thinking of the refugee crisis as one which this county needs to be charitable about, New Zealand actually needs to take refugees in order to make amends for its own actions. The best explanation for why we should be taking thousands of refugees at the moment, is put by Alan Gamlen, a lecturer in human geography at Victoria University in his opinion piece, Why NZ should raise the refugee quota.
Here’s his crucial point: “New Zealand should act because it has helped create a world in which there are more refugees than ever before. Our involvement in Western military interventions in North Africa and the Middle East stretch much further back than the invasion of Iraq, right back into the era of the British Empire, whose post-World War One officials drew the arbitrary borders that ISIS is now fighting to erase. We are part of the problem and we have a moral duty to help to fix it”.
Veteran leftwing activist Mike Treen argues something similar in a very thoughtful blog post, Peoples Power starts to assert our basic humanity in refugee crisis. He also points out that “The latest surge of human debris across the globe is a direct consequence of Western intervention in the Middle East and Afghanistan. Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Afghanistan are the most recent to have been bombed into failed states”.
On the political right, Peter Cresswell seems to agree: “The basic fact is that many of the world’s new refugees come from war zones in which we bear some responsibility. We should then, along with others, take some responsibility for the people displaced” – see: Talking refugee “quotas”. Cresswell argues that “we have no moral reason to exclude these people” and he points out how the economic arguments against accepting refugees don’t stack up.
Others believe New Zealand needs to make amends for failing refugees in the past - as Heather du Plessis-Allan puts it: “If only to make up for our miserable effort last time around” – see her column, New Zealand needs to let in more refugees. She’s referring to New Zealand’s shameful response to the aftermath of World War II: “we didn't pull our weight in rescuing refugees. The US, England and even Australia opened their doors to Jews fleeing the Holocaust and we sat like a child with crossed arms at the end of the world refusing to participate. Back then our immigration policy was aimed at keeping New Zealand white”.
Of course, New Zealand continues to intervene in the Middle East, and when it does so, uses all sorts of humanitarian language to underpin or justify its military actions. Most notably the Prime Minister made a strongly expressed speech in Parliament against those opposing the latest foray into Iraq, shouting that the Opposition need to “Get some guts and join the right side”.
But that has now made Key and his government vulnerable to accusations of hypocrisy because they were willing to show strong moral leadership and rhetoric when siding with a US military campaign, but now refuse to do so faced with a humanitarian crisis. For the best account of this, see Andrew Geddis’ Guts, guts, got no guts. He asks: “So where is our moral leadership now?”
Of course there have been times when New Zealand has been more compassionate – see, for example the 1966 National Film Unit’s nine-minute documentary, The Story of Seven-hundred Polish children.
And for detailed and authoritative information about New Zealand’s history of taking in refugees, the Te Ara online Encyclopedia of New Zealand has two very good entries – Ann Beaglehole’s Refugees and Mark Derby’s Migrant and refugee organisations.
The Tide is turning
Opinion leaders everywhere are rallying behind the need for a big refugee response from New Zealand. When I last wrote on this issue, I noted that the growing crisis wasn’t being taken seriously and there seemed to be overwhelming opposition to letting more refugees in – see: Why won’t New Zealand save more refugees?
Months later the situation appears to have changed. Newspaper editorials have been unambiguous on the issue. Today’s Herald says that New Zealand’s position on refugees “invites scorn” at a time when the country “should be setting an example to the international community” – see: Crisis is tragic, and we have a duty to help. Furthermore the editorial admonishes Key for his history of scaremongering on “the prospect of boatloads of Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans washing up on our shores”.
Similarly, the Dominion Post editorial declares “Our pitifully small intake is a stain on our international reputation” – see: We have a duty to offer a home to more than 750 refugees.
The international media is picking up on New Zealand’s non-response – see the Chinese news agency Xinhuanet’s New Zealand PM under fire for inflexible refugee stance.
Political columnists, broadcasters and commentators everywhere are almost in a consensus about the need for radical action. Long-time refugee advocate Rachel Smalley says this week that Our country must share the burden. Here’s her strongest point: “We are on the UN Security Council. It is hypocritical of us to talk about the need to restart peace talks in the Middle East and to find a resolution to ease the humanitarian crisis that's gripping Iraq and Syria right now. If we shut the door here and say 'not in our back yard'.”
Other broadcasters are equally blunt. Here’s Duncan Garner: “You are inhumane if you don’t feel something. And we as humans must act. The Prime Minister has surely run out of excuses on his refusal to increase refugee numbers. He must move and he must act… The longer the PM digs his heels in the longer he looks out of touch. It is time to move. Not tomorrow. Not next week. But now” – see: The Prime Minister must increase refugee numbers.
Sean Plunket has been arguing for action and has run a poll, with 82% of those voting currently in agreement with him – see: Should New Zealand take more refugees?
Even Willie Jackson – not a big fan of immigration – is forthright: “It is about whether we are decent human beings or not. If we come across a car accident or somebody drowning, our natural impulse is to try and save those people… What about our duties to toddlers drowning on the beach? Just sometimes, I wish John Key would drop the pragmatism and show himself a conviction politician” – see: It's not a matter of quotas, it's about saving lives.
Academics, too, have become more outspoken on the issue. For the best account see Libby Wilson’s Waikato academic calls John Key out on refugee quota. In this report, the University of Waikato's Al Gillespie criticises Key for his "untenable excuse" on the topic, saying taking 1000-2000 extra refugees would be "a drop in the bucket…. But at least it's something. And at the moment to do nothing is just unconscionable”.
Of course, all the political parties – National, aside – are now advocating for New Zealand to take more refugees – see Aimee Gulliver’s Increase NZ's refugee quota, Government's support partners say.
Opposition to refugees coming to NZ
Not everyone is on board the growing pro-refugee consensus. Some on the political right are still citing financial – and other – reasons not to act. This is best encapsulated in Mike Hosking’s 2-minute video, Who will pay for more refugees?
And today Judith Collins justified the National party position on the Paul Henry breakfast show – see Refugee quota boost may not help Syrians – Collins.
John Key has also been outlining the reasons why the Government doesn’t want to act – see Simon Wong’s Upping refugee quota easier said than done – Key. In response to this, Green Party Co-leader Metiria Turei calls Key, “spineless, heartless and gutless”.
However National is now beginning to change its tune. This is best dealt with by Rachel Smalley in her latest column, Why John Key has got it wrong on refugees. Smalley bluntly asserts: “I think the party's strategists thought their centre-right voter base would support them when it came to the refugee crisis… National will have been polling behind the scenes on this issue, and I think we can read between the lines as to what the results of that poll were - when faced with the biggest humanitarian crisis on the planet today, our government got it very, very wrong”.
Smalley predicts that the Government will shift slowly so as not to appear to be capitulating to popular demand. But Key’s response might only be just enough to quieten his critics, but achieve little: “It could be that he allows a small emergency intake. 100 or 200 people, perhaps. And that will take the pressure off the government for the moment, and appease the growing chorus of critics”.
Much is being made of Key’s own mother having been a refugee – see, for example Brian Rudman’s Smart money is on opening doors to refugees. For a short history of Ruth Key, see Eugene Bingham’s 2008 article, Survivor who escaped the Holocaust. He reports that she has undoubtedly had the biggest impact him.
In that case Gordon Campbell says Key’s “inaction is particularly surprising. His own family history might have been expected to induce him to reach a different conclusion” – see: On the government’s response to the refugee crisis in Europe. Furthermore, Campbell notes “Given that history, Key is not in a strong position to tell other refugees to wait their turn, go through proper channels, and delay their arrival until the recipient country has the ideal reception procedures in place”.
For an even more sceptical take on Key’s lack of action, see Danyl Mclauchlan’s blog post, Nothing will come of nothing. He simply sees a cold-hearted pragmatism behind it all, saying that Key’s “instincts are to help those who can help him and then extract maximal benefits from the exchange. And this mentality works for him personally, obviously, but it points to the nihilism in the dark heart of the transactional politics Key is such a master of: impoverished refugees have nothing to offer him, so they get nothing”.
Perhaps the strongest criticism of Key’s inaction and justifications comes from political journalist Andrea Vance – see: John Key shifts stance on refugees as hospitable Kiwis make a point. She labels it shameful and says: “There but for the grace of God go you, or I, or John Key. That you are not one of the hopeless millions joining the largest migration crisis in living memory is only an accident of birthplace”.
Key’s excuses have been laughable according to Jane Clifton. Writing in the latest Listener, she says Key’s “latest shocker was to try to convince us that the United Nations would be put out if we upped our refugee quota in order to accept some Syrians. As if UN functionaries would be thumping their desks, fuming, ‘Unbelievable. We have to do all our flow charts and discussion papers all over again because bloody inconsiderate New Zealand is taking 250 more’.”
As for the prime minister’s argument that the situation is too big for New Zealand to respond to, Amnesty International New Zealand director Grant Bayldon has been scathing: "If you see a house that's burning down and there are 10 people inside, you don't stand out on the footpath and say we can only save two, what difference will it make? You do what you can” – see Amelia Langford’s PM cold on upping refugee quota.
What can be done?
Many people feel so strongly about it that they are committing to bring refugees into their own homes. For example, Professor Bronwyn Hayward –Head of the Politics Department at the University of Canterbury – has made her own personal commitment: “next year we will have children away at university and we too can make room too… Our spare rooms not flash and the curtains are not sorted out, but we could also make room for a couple or parent and child” – see: Raise the Refugee Quota: expanding our empathy, one spare room at a time.
Likewise, blogger John Palethorpe reflects on the extraordinary displays of compassionate banners at football games in Europe welcoming refugees, and says “I’ve got a bedsheet and some paint ready” – see: Refugees Welcome.
For more on how the public is responding, see Scott Yeoman’s Hundreds of Kiwis pledge to help refugees. In relation to this, see the Facebook group: Open homes – Open borders – We will host a refugee – Aotearoa. See also, Josie Pagani’s We can do something right now – refugee crisis and Tracey Barnett’s Would you host a refugee?
There will be plenty more heat put on the Government over its response to the crisis. And it’s not just about the numbers of refugees, but also how well the government deals with those we do let in. Tomorrow on TV3’s The Nation there will be a report on the services provided, and whether we do enough.
One of the people who is most responsible for highlighting New Zealand’s inadequate response is Murdoch Stephens, the lead researcher and spokesperson for Doing Our Bit. You can watch a 5-minute TV3 interview with him: Murdoch Stephens – extended interview. He has written two very good opinion pieces: They're not migrants, double the refugee quota now and No defence for keeping NZ's refugee quota so small. And you can find out more at the Doing Our Bit Facebook page.
Finally, there are some truly cutting images being produced by New Zealand cartoonists about this country’s non-response to the crisis – see: Cartoons about New Zealand’s “response” to the Refugee crisis. There are also some informative GIF-cartoons in Toby Manhire and Toby Morris’ What to do about the world refugee crisis? That is the question. And if you’re in the mood for biting parodies, see local satirist Scott Yorke’s blog posts, Keep your dead children off our beaches! and A statement from John Key.