An Amnesty International demonstration outside the Beehive, 2015
An Amnesty International demonstration outside the Beehive, 2015

SocietyJuly 7, 2018

It’s time for Aotearoa to step up and welcome home more refugees

An Amnesty International demonstration outside the Beehive, 2015
An Amnesty International demonstration outside the Beehive, 2015

New Zealanders are outraged at how the United States is treating asylum seekers at the US-Mexico border. Thalia Kehoe Rowden reckons this is a good time to figure out if we want to be the good guys or the bad guys, here in Aotearoa.

Whenever New Zealanders criticise other countries’ treatment of refugees, someone on Facebook or Twitter will complain that it’s all very well for such a geographically isolated nation to point the finger – but how would we feel if boats filled with asylum seekers started arriving at Piha and Raglan?

And they’re right. We haven’t been tested. We don’t know how we would respond.

With 60 million refugees around the world unable to return home and unwelcome elsewhere, Aotearoa needs to find out.

We need to decide what kind of people we are.

The cruel and illegal detention policies of Australia and the United States, and Italy’s shrinking back into nationalist fear as boats cross the Mediterranean – these negative responses to refugees only happen because the citizens of those nations are okay with turning our backs on desperate people.

What are we okay with?

Instead of waiting until climate change gets worse and we’re confronted with these choices, or giving in now to fringe pressure to become an isolationist nation of doomsday preppers, how about we actively choose a different identity?

We could choose, now, to meet the global refugee crisis head-on. We revel in being the punching-above-our-weight little nation that forges its own path, so let’s put our hands up to welcome more – dramatically more – people whose homes have been destroyed.

Here are some ways we can make Aotearoa a country worthy of Dave Dobbyn’s refugee anthem, ‘Welcome Home’.

Respect and uphold the mana of the tangata whenua

In 1840 Māori outnumbered settlers 40 to one. By 1874, Māori formed just a tenth of the population of these islands. Before Pākehā like me advocate opening the doors ever wider to refugees, we need to give Māori the floor – and do everything we can as beneficiaries of the Treaty of Waitangi to uphold the mana of tangata whenua.

Check out Professor Tahu Kukutai and Dr Arama Rata’s chapter in Fair Borders?: Migration Policy in the Twenty-First Century, and Prof Kukutai’s interview in e-Tangata, where they explain how “manaakitanga provides a useful framework when envisaging a tika system for immigration”.

As part of that, tikanga Māori needs to regain a central place in the culture of Aotearoa, including in education and public life. That’s everyone’s responsibility – yours and mine.

Check out this cool pilot project (that has run out of funding) where mana whenua in Porirua and Lower Hutt have been hosting former refugees, to show manaaki, and teach them tikanga and local history – and make friends.

Graphic: Manu Caddie

Make Aotearoa a more refugee-welcoming place

Led by Angela Merkel, Germany has made a national decision to open its doors and collective heart to refugees, with ‘Willkommenskultur’, or ‘welcome culture’. This community in Aceh did the same.

By contrast, Australia and the US have instead embraced fear – fear that there won’t be enough to go around, fear of cultural differences, fear that white folks will lose their position at the top of the tree, fear that if they give an inch, a mile will be snatched from them.

We get to decide our national character. If we want it to be one of manaakitanga and welcome, we can work on that while we’re lobbying for an increased quota. We can build up a stash of goodwill and energy that we’re happy to spend on people who need care and hospitality.

  • Help any kids in your life to grow up into compassionate, refugee-welcoming citizens. Involve them in your volunteering. Share these books with them. Make sure they have social connections with a range of people.
  • Make space in your life for new people. Slow down.
  • If you are lucky enough to have plenty, share it around intentionally – whether to born-and-bred kiwis or to people from refugee backgrounds. Pay for a kid’s music lessons or soccer fees. Drop some supermarket vouchers in a letterbox. Tell your kids’ school that you’ll cover the year’s field trip and camp fees for a child they nominate. Give a meal to a neighbour.
  • Fill your social media feeds with nice people, change-makers and diverse voices. Follow all the local refugee agencies in this article, plus some international advocates, and of course, Aunty Helen, so you’ll grow your knowledge and empathy. Follow people different from you.
  • Get to know your neighbours.
  • Lots more ideas here, here and here.

Get involved with refugee support organisations so they can keep up with increases

If you have spare money in the budget for good causes, you can donate to RASNZ, Red Cross, ChangeMakers Refugee Forum or the Asylum Seekers Support Trust.

Cashed up or not, how about volunteering with them?

Each of these organisations does fantastic work to help former refugees settle into life in Aotearoa. The more money and volunteers they have, the more refugees we can be sure we can provide for as our quota increases.

Just about anyone has something to offer. Some options:

  • Sign up with Red Cross to be a resettlement volunteer.
  • Donate good quality household gear to the Red Cross to help furnish a former refugee’s first home in Aotearoa.
  • Chat with a former refugee to help their conversational English come along. Be a friend in their new home. You can train as a tutor (60 hours training) here, or just contact your local volunteer hub, library, church or community centre to see which community groups near you running conversational English gatherings you can just join in.
  • Volunteer with RASNZ to support former refugees – maybe by mentoring a university student, befriending a young parent, or providing transport and practical help to someone getting used to a new country.
  • What about being a driving mentor with ChangeMakers, or helping out with social media or admin support?
  • Can you help with grocery shopping for food donations for asylum seekers in Auckland?

Lobby the government to take more refugees

Phone Winston Peters (as Minister of Foreign Affairs) and Jacinda Ardern, when she’s back from leave, and tell them what you think. Call your electorate MP, too.

The Labour government has thankfully agreed to increase our paltry refugee quota from 750 a year to 1500 by the end of 2020 – and we also welcome a few more who have family here already. But Siri tells me that even 2000 a year is 0.00003% of 60 million, so it’s hard to argue that we’re doing enough, or anything like our share.

If you feel strongly about any of this, you could even set a reminder on your phone to call their offices every day. Each call is noted and the message passed on. Winston Peters is 04 817 8701; Jacinda Ardern is 04 817 8700. Find your local MP’s number here.

Tell them you want New Zealand to keep repeating our offer to take the refugees detained in Nauru and Manus by Australia – many of them children – and welcome them in Aotearoa.

Tell them you want us to dramatically increase our refugee quota and fund resettlement accordingly.

You could even tell them you would be happy with a tax increase to pay for this, not that it’s probably even necessary.

Graphic: Manu Caddie

Throw whataboutery in the bin

No matter what ‘cause’ you write about or care about, there’ll be someone handy to tell you you’re wrong.

When I wrote about what we can do here in Aotearoa to free children detained by US immigration authorities, comments on The Spinoff’s Facebook page included these gems:

‘Let’s ask our govt to do as they promised of election and get kiwi kids out of poverty – they don’t need to worry about kids in the US’

‘Got 2 worry about wat happening in the NZ 1st b4 poking our nose in thea business…. z Trump the one 2 fix it…z Labor the one 2 fix here…’

And the prize for the biggest stretch goes to the John Key fan (according to his nom de plume) who urged us to:

‘maybe start showing equal concern for children being killed in commercial killing facilities aka abortion clinics in NZ’

This kind of whataboutery is based on the fairly ridiculous idea that human beings can only work on solving one problem at a time. The truth is that New Zealanders are quite capable of caring about children living in poverty here, as well as doing what we can about international human rights abuses. Some of us even watch Queer Eye as well. And recycle. And compose our dragon name on Twitter. Next level multi-tasking!

Repeat after me, Facebook commenters: We can care about more than one thing at a time.

So, do we want to be the goodies or the baddies in the history books?

I’m sure a lot of the people chanting ‘Build the wall!’ used to be ordinary and kind human beings. Somewhere along the line they forgot that.

Let’s make a different choice. Let’s sing along with Dave.


Keep going!