John Key at the UN. Photo: UNTV
John Key at the UN. Photo: UNTV

OPINIONOpinionSeptember 26, 2016

John Key’s latest refugee remarks are a facepalming litany of wrongness

John Key at the UN. Photo: UNTV
John Key at the UN. Photo: UNTV

On the world stage at the UN, the prime minister attempted to appear the global statesman. But following Obama’s pledge on resettlement, Key produced a series of clangers, argues Murdoch Stephens of the Doing Our Bit campaign.

At the weekend both The Nation and Q+A interviewed John Key in New York, fresh from his address to the UN General Assembly and chairing of the Security Council. He was asked about our tiny refugee quota and whether his tough talk on Syria would translate into more aid or a higher quota.

These were reasonable questions to ask given Obama announced the number of resettlement places offered across the world would double in 2017, essentially mirroring the Doing Our Bit campaign.

John Key at the UN. Photo: UNTV
John Key at the UN. Photo: UNTV

Below are six clangers from his Q+A interview with Corin Dann (transcript here). Each taken alone could be read as the kind of error you’d expect of a man that has to be up to date on a whole range of issues. But put together they make me suspect his plan on the refugee crisis is to grope for answers in the hope the questions will go away. Because the real emergency for the prime minister seems to be not with the refugees, but with having to answer all these difficult questions about our poor record on the issue.

‘We’re pouring money into camps and the like’

Hmmm. I don’t know about “the like” but the refugee camps in countries surrounding Syria aren’t exactly singing Key’s praises. Oxfam shows the New Zealand government is giving just 15% of our fair share of aid to Syria. The $2.5m given by the government to Syria is half of 1% of our total aid budget.

Our contribution is lower than the United States (76% of fair share) and lower than Australia (37%).

Heck, our measly 15% of fair share is lower than Greece (36%) and even Saudi Arabia (28%).

So what is New Zealand’s aid budget being spent on? There was the $7.5m spent in 2015 on upgrading a hotel for tourism in Niue (in addition to more than $10m in previous years).

I’m not disparaging the benefits of tourism to the Niue economy but am wondering whether this one project is really worth three times the whole aid budget to Syria, which the UN has called the humanitarian crisis of the century.

Wherever the balance lies, Key saying that we’re “pouring money into refugee camps” just ain’t the case. If we’re pouring money anywhere, it’s into the defence industry with $20bn going there in the next 15 years.

‘Yeah, but I looked at his [Obama’s refugee intake] numbers. He was talking about 80,000 coming into the United States. I mean, if you look at the relative populations, they’re 321 million people. To me, the numbers weren’t a million miles out.’

The refugee quota issue is complicated and there are many numbers out there. When Key last June claimed that we took 3,000-4,000 people a year once you factor in families, we accepted his apology and correction at a press conference later the same day.

Before looking at the numbers three points need to be made.

First, Key quotes last year’s US quota of 80,000. Later in the same interview he half-concedes it is now 110,000. Second, to measure fair share of intake you have to also look at convention refugees – the people who make it to your country on their own to be accepted as asylum seekers like the 160,000 who went to Sweden last year and 1.1m to Germany. If we didn’t include them it would seem New Zealand did more than Germany, which is obviously not true. Third, the UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, measures hosting refugees, which includes people not yet accepted as convention refugees.

Projected NZ and US refugee hosting comparison:

Country Population Quota refugees Convention refugees Total refugees. Refugees per 1000 people
NZ 4.5m 1000 120 1120 0.248
USA 321m 110 000 25 000 135 000 0.42

But think also about this: why look at the US? I mean, Obama has been struggling against some of the most anti-refugee hysterical politicians in the world.

Why not compare us to countries such as Australia (with three times our intake) and Canada, who’ve tripled their quota this year? Or why not look at other nations like Germany, Sweden or any of the countries surrounding the countries of origin that still take four out of five refugees?

Or, if all those numbers are too much, then we can revisit the Oxfam statistics, specifically on Syrian refugees. There we have pledged just 37% of our fair share.

‘No one’s arguing New Zealand couldn’t put up its hand and say, “We’ll take another 100 people or another 200 people,” whatever the number might be…’

Actually, you’re right. No-one is arguing against that. So do it. Put up your hand and increase the quota to 1,200 today, then make 1,500 a policy at the election in 2017. There’s room at the Mangere reception centre and 49% of New Zealanders live in a region where there is currently no refugee resettlement. We have the capacity.

‘… But the question is – is that [1-200 extra places per year] more important or is it more important to say there are potentially 13 million displaced people, and if we could resolve what’s happening on the ground in Syria …’

The point of a refugee quota is not to move every person deemed to be fleeing persecution or war to a different country. The quota, at best, aims to resettle those most vulnerable people who might not survive the time it takes to resolve the war in Syria. That’s why the quota has a category for women-at-risk. That’s why the quota has a category for people with medical conditions or who are disabled.

That said, I love that John Key is keen on peace for Syria. Anti-war campaigns are the logical extension of pro-refugee campaigns.

But if there is peace in Syria and all their refugees can go home, we’ll still need extra refugee quota places for the other countries that are part of the refugee crisis.

Obviously, world peace would be the best thing for all, but until Key has a proper plan for that then let’s make sure we do our bit for the most vulnerable who, actually, might not survive for years in dire refugee camps and the like – such as the million from South Sudan, for example …

‘The United Nations, the programme that we’re part of, which is part of that quota, UNHCR, actually don’t like us going in there and saying, “We want Syrians or we want this”. Their argument is the plight of a refugee in a camp in Darfur …’

The UNHCR might not like us choosing which refugees we take, but that type of policy is central to the National government’s approach to refugees. In the eight years Key has been prime minister he has established and maintained a policy that bans new quota refugees from African and the Middle East from coming to New Zealand unless they already have family here or are part of an emergency intake.

That policy is the reason why in eight years of his government we have only taken 51 people from Sudan and South Sudan combined even though he cites it as a place where many refugees need help from.

So when Key says they “don’t like us going there and saying, ‘We want Syrians or this’” he knows from experience. They’ve been saying it to us for years.

Well, I think they [New Zealanders] would generally say we’ve got it about right. Some would say you could take a few more. Of course, some would say take a few less.’

There have been two polls done in the last 15 months and both showed a majority of support for, first, doing more (Colmar Brunton, July 2015) and, second, doing more on top of the more we’ve already done (Research NZ, October 2015). Conclusions: generally New Zealanders would say take a few more.

No-one is saying we have to become Canada or Germany or Sweden: just do our fair share. And even doubling it is a bare minimum. In the mid-term we really need to pull even with Australia, which would have us at 3,000 people per year. It’s not a hard ask.

In the meantime, there is one way to create a bit of empathy where it has been lacking: Key and his Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse should actually visit the refugee camps and countries that they talk about. Until then the facepalming interviews will continue.

Murdoch Stephens leads the Doing Our Bit campaign to double New Zealand’s refugee quota and funding.

Keep going!