Politics

NZ’s response to the humanitarian crisis of the century puts shallow prudence above people and principle

Opinion: Murdoch Stephens of Doing Our Bit unpicks the announcement of a modest increase in NZ’s refugee intake, and the immigration minister’s suggestion that campaigners ‘care a little less’ about new arrivals’ resettlement

There is a familiar arc that is meant to be respected when responding to disappointing news from a disappointing government: cautiously challenge the wisdom of their decision and reiterate your key messages. I’ve been running the Doing Our Bit campaign to double New Zealand’s refugee quota for three years now and am a little fed up with the beige, business-as-usual response from this government to the humanitarian crisis of the century.

So, my apologies if my analysis of the announcement includes a bit of piqued cynicism. Having seen what a government is capable of when led by people who manifestly care – looking at you Justin Trudeau – it is affronting to be ruled by a government where the predominant ambition appears to be tax cuts.

With that preamble and defence, here’s my response to the government’s key messages from their refugee quota announcement:

Today the government announced that it will increase the size of the Refugee Quota from 750 to 1,000 places per year from 2018′ – Michael Woodhouse, immigration minister

Why 1,000 places? Not because that number would make up for population growth since the quota was introduced in 1987 (it doesn’t). And not because that number means we’d be doing as much as similar countries (we’re not).

But just because it is a nice, round number. One thousand.

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. Conservatism is fine when it is protecting lives, but when it works in the service of keeping a three-decade old system the same as it is, then it is shameful.

A mural in Amman, Jordan. Photograph: Simon Day of World Vision

A mural in Amman, Jordan. Photograph: Simon Day of World Vision

‘The new quota of 1,000 will cost an extra $25 million a year. This is on top of the $75 million a year we currently spend on quota refugees’

Economists have consistently said that in the medium-term refugees are not a cost to the country because, unlike the $20bn of defence spending, they are funding people who work and pay taxes. However, the National government insists we focus on short-term fiscal costs and ignore any economic equations that match costs with benefits.

If the conversation was about hosting another Rugby World Cup you know that the minister would have all sorts of calculations on the positive economic impact of government’s short-term spending. No such statistics are available for refugees – just the costs.

‘The government has also agreed to pilot a new community sponsorship category in 2017/2018. The details of the pilot are still being worked through and will be announced next year’

The Syrian crisis is into its sixth year. The number of people that have fled the ravaged Middle-East country is greater than the population in New Zealand. In the last 12 months Canadian private/community sponsorship has welcomed 10,000 Syrians.

Last September the Anglican and Catholic churches said they had the ability to look after 1,200 refugees immediately. The government rejected that offer and will tinker with a private sponsorship model in a year or two. Even then it’ll only aim to offer places for just 25 people.

‘Well, obviously we’ve had a very strong call for a doubling of the quota but some of the advocates for that who I’ve talked to care a little less about the quality of those settlement outcomes … I expect all New Zealanders think we should do our bit at improving the quality of those [resettlement] outcomes as well as increasing the numbers that we’re taking’

I run a campaign called Doing Our Bit. So you might think that this section is directed at me, given he says the words “doing our bit”.

But I’ve only talked with Woodhouse once, and only then two years ago. He only met me because he’d also met a bunch of wealthy businessmen who paid Cabinet Club $10,000 to meet Ministers and then a Green MP had asked him why he wouldn’t meet refugee advocates like me.

But since we met so long ago I doubt he’s talking about me – it must be some other heartless humanitarian group that “cares a little less” about the quality of settlement outcomes than Woodhouse.

‘Immigration New Zealand will also start a process to select a further refugee settlement location to assist the accommodation of the extra intake’

The government is moving away from resettling refugees in Auckland, and Christchurch hasn’t taken people since the earthquakes. Last year they considered Invercargill, New Plymouth, Tauranga and Napier/Hastings with the first two looking most likely. The government sell-off of state houses was a potential problem in Tauranga and Invercargill, but since the scheme has failed to attract any interest in Invercargill, I wouldn’t be surprised if it became a new resettlement city.

If the government cared a little more about refugee wellbeing they’d have taken note of the calls for semi-rural resettlement options for refugees from a rural background. That’s how you match people to a community and employment, not by stuffing everyone into a city and then underfunding the people who’re to help them establish new lives and communities.

‘The annual refugee quota is just one part of New Zealand’s total refugee and humanitarian programme. There are also 300 places available each year for family reunification and an additional 125-175 asylum seekers have their claims approved each year’

Sweden received 160,000 asylum applications last year. Germany had 1.1 million applications. Because we only accept 100-odd asylum seekers per year we use the quota system to make up for that. It also means we have a choice about what to do and our government has chosen to do far less than any of the countries we like to imagine we are similar to.

Australia will continue to do more than three times more than us when adjusted for size.

Oh, and those family reunification places – the government contributes no money towards that. Nothing. The costs of it are met by the families or through the excellent work of Refugee Family Reunification trusts.

Once the government finally releases their working on how they got to this outcome we’ll have some other questions answered too:

Are there still 150 places on the table for refugees to be freed from Australia’s deplorable Pacific gulags?

Are we still only taking refugees from the Middle East and Africa if they already have family in New Zealand?

What other options for an increased quota were presented to the government?

As it stands the review of the refugee quota – more than nine months after the government claimed it would undertake a rigorous process – reeks of a government bereft of ideas and ambition, and more willing to see refugees as a problem than as people.


View Simon Day’s photo essay from his recent visit to a Syrian refugee camp here

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