Justifying a meagre refugee quota because of the homeless problem is a terrible, terrible argument

Charity may start at home, but it shouldn’t stop there, writes Amnesty International’s Grant Bayldon

I spent a recent chilly Thursday night sleeping in the car with my son at Mangere Town Centre. It was the Park Up For Homes event, raising awareness of local homelessness.

I can’t pretend it was a great hardship for one night we had that satisfying feeling of knowing there was a hot shower waiting for us at home. Not only that; we were surrounded by enthusiastic volunteers offering us snacks and hot chocolate. Musicians played, sausage sizzle smells wafted around, people nodded along to speeches, and in the morning there was early horn-honking and waving all around as people packed up to leave.

It wasn’t meant to replicate the experience of living in a car, just to raise awareness of it. But beneath it was a strong shared belief about what’s a basic human need the right to adequate housing which is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and a deep concern for how this is being eroded.

An Amnesty International demonstration at parliament Photo: Amnesty International

An Amnesty International demonstration at parliament. Photo: Amnesty International

One sleep in a real bed later I was just down the road from the town centre at the opening of the rebuilt Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre. After 70 years the dilapidated, paint-peeling, drafty army barracks have finally been retired. After the powhiri and speeches, the Burundi drummers kicked off an extravaganza of cultural performances from refugee background communities.

The government had just made its refugee quota review announcement. After being stagnant for 30 years it will increase from 2018 by just 250.

Trawl back through the prime minister’s media interviews on refugees and you’ll hear a lot of subtle messaging about local housing shortages. On the face of it, that’s fair enough. After all, refugees need housing, and we already have homelessness.

But dig a little deeper and the foundations of this messaging start to look decidedly rotten.

The first reason is obvious. The 250 extra refugees represent just 80 families a tiny number even by New Zealand standards who will be spread around the country. In fact only those with families already in Auckland will go there. The rest are largely settled in provincial centres which do not have housing shortages.

But there’s a second problem with the government’s messaging that’s really ironic. Because by subtly playing off homelessness against refugee resettlement, the government is missing the point that refugees are by definition people who have had to flee their homes and their home countries. As Anglican Bishop Justin Duckworth recently said, homelessness is homelessness whether it’s caused by war or poverty  we can and should work on both.

The obvious win for the government in putting the issue of the refugee quota up against homelessness could be to play off supporters of increasing the refugee quota against supporters of action on homelessness, without actually doing anything significant on either.

So what does it mean to be a country that not only addresses its own human rights issues locally, like homelessness, but also plays its part in the broader international issue? Should we really do anything at all internationally until we’ve fixed everything here? After all, tune into talkback or make the mistake of reading online newspaper comments and you’ll be constantly reminded that charity begins at home.

It turns out that the old “charity begins at home” chestnut is quite helpful here. Because far from being a warning against being too generous to outsiders, it was originally intended to mean something more like “charity only begins at home, it doesn’t end there”.

It’s easy and comfortable to think of national self-interest as the right approach probably because it’s just a modern take on our ancestors’ tribal thinking. And, as singer Ruth Mundy puts it, it’s easy to think that we are to thank for our own good luck, as if it were something that we earned.

If you haven’t come across the “Good Country Index” you should have a look. It ranks countries on how they contribute to the world, relative to size. The premise is that the big challenges that face us as a world are global ones. That every single problem would be better dealt with as an international one learning from others, bringing them in, coming to an international understanding. That we’ll never get anywhere unless we kick the habit of thinking just of domestic self-interest. And we need to move on to understand that charity only begins at home.

The great thing about taking an enlightened international view is that it pays off domestically too. As Good Country Index founder Simon Anholt points out, the countries we admire are the good ones, the ones that work to make the world safer, better and fairer. And with a good reputation everything is easy you get more tourists, more business meetings, you can even sell your products more easily.

That’s the sort of country I want to live in. One that considers homelessness from both a local and global perspective. One that, rather than playing them off against each other, works meaningfully on both.

Grant Bayldon is the Executive Director of Amnesty International NZ

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