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Trump’s refugee ban is a moral outrage that shames America. When will PM Bill English say so?

The US President’s executive order banning all immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries has drawn global condemnation. Now, more than ever, it’s time for New Zealand to step up and do what’s right for refugees, writes Murdoch Stephens.

When President Donald Trump banned a tweet from a government department that mentioned carbon dioxide, hinting at climate change, unknown employees set up a parallel account and kept on tweeting.

When Trump announced he’d cut funding to any family planning services that even mentioned abortion, the Netherlands stepped up to create a fund to plug the gap.

Now that he has instituted a ban on refugees from some of the countries with the greatest need for resettlement (update: on Sunday afternoon NZ time, a federal court issued an emergency order halting deportations under the ban), it is up to every country to defend the principle that human rights apply to all. Indeed, human rights only make sense as a universal concept if they are applied to those people most at risk.

France and Germany have already stepped up and denounced Trump’s refugee policies.

But where is New Zealand’s Prime Minister Bill English?

One can imagine his strategists talking through their response to Trump’s fear mongering. Prudence would have been the course charted before this week, with English hoping not to be drawn into commenting on the fairness, legality or even morality of Trump’s blitzkrieg. But how can English stay silent now?

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As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has stepped up to say Canada would take refugees rejected by the US, so should New Zealand. We should do our bit by immediately increasing our quota to 1500 places and offer those places to the most vulnerable.

Offering safety to 1500 people –­ around 400 families per year – would not make us a world leader. Indeed, even Australia, hardly the world’s most humane country when it comes to refugee rights, would still be doing twice as much as us – but at least that increase would mean we’d be moving in the right direction.

Earlier this week English rejected a call to increase the quota by repeating the homilies of John Key about wanting to do a good job before expanding the numbers. If English had ever spoken to people in the sector he’d note their overwhelming support for a significant increase in our refugee quota.

In listening to English one hears not a hint of New Zealand’s terrible world standing – ranking at 96th in the world at hosting refugees per capita. Instead he avoids comparisons to any other country or how much we did in the past. He can take that tack when New Zealand journalists are asking him, but not when foreign leaders bring it up, as they have been more and more regularly, first with Key, then with English.

It’s time for English’s mettle to be tested. Will he be neutral in a situation of injustice, which Desmond Tutu rightly said means that a person has sided with the oppressors? Or will he take the chance to stand on the side of those most in need?

New Zealand’s own refugee restrictions

Trump’s flagrant banning of refugees from seven Muslim majority countries, as well as the suspension of the entire refugee programme for four months, has brought me back to thinking about New Zealand’s own selection criteria.

I’ve been running the Doing Our Bit campaign to double the refugee quota for the last few years and in that time I’ve become acutely aware of how New Zealand is also, in a much more subtle manner, rejecting refugees from the Middle East and Africa. I wrote about it in 2014 and 2015, but the issue never really got picked up.

New Zealand has our own softer version of the refugee ban. It is neither bombastic or explicitly based on religion, but the consequences are the same: we’ve had a drastic reduction in refugees arriving to New Zealand from Muslim countries.

In 2009, as part of a pivot to the Pacific, the incoming Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully refocused our refugee quota on the Asia-Pacific region (mostly refugees from Burma, Bhutan and Afghanistan), dramatically reducing the numbers of refugees from Africa. Where we used to accept roughly a third from Africa, a third from the Middle East and a third from Asia-Pacific, we have been taking two-thirds from Asia-Pacific, about 20% from the Americas and, roughly, the remaining as family linked cases from the Middle East (10%) and Africa (3%). Full statistics for the last decade can be found on the Immigration New Zealand website, while MFAT’s deliberations are available online too.

Why have we done this? The reasons are three-fold: (a) cost: it is cheaper to fly refugees here from the Asia-Pacific regions; (b) assisting with regional solutions ie. the movement of people from South East Asia to Australia by boat; (c) “broad security concerns” with most of the details on this section redacted under s(6)a of the Official Information Act.

The most obvious exceptions to this restriction of African and Middle Eastern refugees to direct family members only were the emergency intakes of Syrian refugees – first with two annual intakes of 50 Syrians within the quota, then the larger intake of 750 people, 600 in addition to the quota, in September 2015.

It’s also worth noting that the regions referred to are not the countries refugees originated in, but the countries where they are registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees: that means that a recent Palestinian family, who had made their way to Thailand, were resettled as part of the Asia-Pacific intake.

Demonstrators block traffic at the San Francisco Airport international arrival terminal as they protest against the Muslim immigration ban on January 28, 2017. President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Friday that suspends entry of all refugees for 120 days, indefinitely suspends the entries of all Syrian refugees, as well as barring entries from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering for 90 days. (Photo by Stephen Lam/Getty Images)

Demonstrators block traffic at the San Francisco Airport international arrival terminal as they protest against the Muslim immigration ban on January 28, 2017. President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Friday that suspends entry of all refugees for 120 days, indefinitely suspends the entries of all Syrian refugees, as well as barring entries from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering for 90 days. (Photo by Stephen Lam/Getty Images)

As is so often the case, New Zealanders who are rightly aghast at the actions of a foreign power can find plenty to be upset about in our own government’s behaviour. If we’re looking to stand up to the fear of Trump’s first week then a renewed commitment to protecting some of those forsaken by Trump – in solidarity with many other countries – is the very least we can do.

How you can help

Double The Quota

New Zealand’s refugee intake is an international shame, garnering criticism both from international leaders and internally. The tiny 2016 increase was described by the Dominion Post as “callous” and by the NZ Herald as “pathetic”.

The pressure group I run, Doing Our Bit, will be campaigning during the 2017 election to make this international human rights issue central to the political agenda. It already has support from Labour, the Green Party, United Future and The Opportunities Party.

To support our work, follow us on Facebook and learn more and sign up to our email list at doingourbit.co.nz.

Volunteering with new refugee families

The NZ Red Cross runs New Zealand’s refugee resettlement programme. If you’d like to help, your options include everything from donating quality used goods, to volunteering with new families, to linking refugees to employment opportunities. Learn more at redcross.org.nz.

There are also more than a dozen other organisations around New Zealand’s six (soon to be seven) refugee locations offering such vital services as helping former refugees learn to drive and sponsoring family members for relocation. Consider donating your time and skills to those organisations as well. A comprehensive list is at the Red Cross website here.

Murdoch Stephens is the founder of the Doing Our Bit campaign to double New Zealand’s refugee quota.


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