Politics

Words are cheap. Now Ardern must take real action to save the Manus Island refugees

Over the weekend PM Jacinda Ardern reiterated the government’s offer to take 150 asylum seekers imprisoned on Manus Island. But we can’t stop there, writes Jessie Dennis. Now it’s time to swap compassionate words for life-saving action.

The situation for refugees on Manus Island is a humanitarian crisis. The New Zealand government’s response to this so far has been to recycle platitudes while doing as little as it can. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern made an offer to take 150 people and once again, Australia turned us down.

What a shame. Oh well, we offered, job done, let’s move on.

But here’s the thing: We don’t need to ask Australia’s permission to help these people. Australia has all but abandoned these people after illegally detaining them for years in conditions amounting to torture. New Zealand can bring some sanity back to this situation by helping these people now.

The new government likes to talk a lot about compassion and kindness. But what they have done in the last few days is repeat a cynical deal that John Key made with Julia Gillard in 2013. One that said we would take 150 refugees from them a year as part of our refugee quota. John Key said at the time this was an “Australasian issue” and that New Zealand needed to help with a “regional solution”.

Map showing the location of Manus Island and the Republic of Nauru, where the Australian government is keeping hundreds of asylum seekers in detention centres

Around the same time, the Key government was following Australia’s example and creating a new law that would see asylum seekers arriving by boat to New Zealand detained under the Mass Arrivals Bill. This bill, now law, contradicts not only our international commitments to help refugees and asylum seekers but our Bill of Rights which asserts the right not be arbitrary detained. It was passed despite the fact no asylum seeker has ever made it to New Zealand by boat and the chance of them doing so is remote.

Real leadership would be revoking the Key/Gillard deal and the Mass Arrivals law and speaking directly with Papua New Guinea to bring the refugees here. We do not need Australia’s permission to help these people. This is an Australasian issue but through its horrific treatment and torture of these refugees, Australia has lost any right to make demands and dictate New Zealand’s actions. Everyone has the right to seek asylum no matter which way they arrive in a country.

Peter Fraser and Countess Wodzicka (far left) with Polish refugee children who have just arrived in Wellington on board the ship General Randall. Photograph taken by John Dobree Pascoe, 31 October 1944. Alexander Turnbull Library 1/2-003634-F

Seventy-three years ago last week Peter Fraser welcomed to New Zealand over 800 Polish refugees who had arrived by boat from war torn Europe. Right now the highest number of people are living as refugees or displaced persons since World War II, some 65 million according to the UN. If ever there was a time for us to act as Fraser did it is now. Our lack of real action leaves us complicit in the abuse of these people.

In October 2016 then Labour leader Andrew Little said of Australia’s offshore detention centres, “If the Australians aren’t going to cooperate and allow New Zealand’s offer to assist – which is the right thing to do – then John Key should cause international embarrassment to Australia.” But now that Labour is in power Ardern considers New Zealand to be in the ‘lucky position’ of not having to deal with ‘boat people’ like Australia. Ardern is now on the slippery slope towards taking on Australia’s dehumanising rhetoric and sidelining the people in need of help.

The majority of people think we should do something to help and there is a petition calling on the government to urgently welcome the refugees on Manus here. So why wouldn’t we do the responsible thing and bring them to New Zealand?

People gathered outside Parliament last Thursday to demand the government bring Manus Island refugees to New Zealand

There are those that say these people are queue jumpers and are trying to cheat the system. There is no queue to jump. The law states that when you arrive in a country you declare your right to seek asylum and that country must offer you the same protection it would any other refugee.

Others say we shouldn’t help them when we have so many problems of our own and argue we must fix homelessness and child poverty before taking on anyone else. This is the calculated rhetoric started by the last government to pit the most marginalised in our society against one another whilst doing nothing to help either. The reality is that we are a wealthy nation with the capacity to do both – we could start by moving some of the $20 billion that the government will spend on defence over the next 15 years.

What are we going to do with them when they get here? The same thing we do with other refugees: offer them support and the chance to rebuild their lives. If the government doesn’t think it has the capacity then it should let New Zealanders show the compassion we’ve proven we’re capable of. I would be willing to house a refugee in my home and help to support them. I am not alone in this as was shown when the Facebook page Open Homes Open Borders was created for people offering to take a refugee into their own homes. This is not some wild idea – it’s already commonplace in many European countries like the UK where refugees struggle to find somewhere to live.

At what point does NZ stand up to Australia? Ardern and her new government have a choice to make about which side of history it will be on when it comes to Australia’s growing human rights violations.

This is our chance to help. There is no excuse. The New Zealand government needs to act now to bring them here.

Jessie Dennis is a Wellington peace activist, campaigner, organiser and facilitator.

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