Michael Timmins: Key's refugee policy misses the boat

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New Zealand should lead the way on constructive solutions for asylum seekers in Southeast Asia.

The Government's programme is complicit in Australia's flawed system for dealing with so-called boat people. Photo / APN
The Government's programme is complicit in Australia's flawed system for dealing with so-called boat people. Photo / APN

The announcement by the Government that it will take asylum seekers or refugees from Australia completely misses the boat on actually protecting refugees.

Rather than looking to play a positive role and improve protection in the region, New Zealand prefers to cosy up to Australia's broken asylum system.

According to reports, under the agreement New Zealand will absorb from Australia 150 "boat people" a year.

This number will not be on top of our current commitment to resettle 750 refugees a year from all over the world, effectively meaning that that commitment is now reduced to 600 refugees a year (compared to 50,000 in the United States and 20,000 in Australia).

Beyond this retrenchment, there are other fundamental problems with this agreement and its short-term outlook.

In the first place, it is clearly complicit in Australia's broken asylum system.

Current and former governments in Australia have pursued punitive policies of mandatory detention and offshore processing to great media attention and political manoeuvring.

Not one of these policies has actually stopped the boats. Rather, these policies have led to the additional suffering of asylum seekers and refugees fleeing persecution, with the current version, offshore processing in Nauru and Papua New Guinea, being condemned by Australian advocates as inhumane. A recent Amnesty International delegation visited Nauru and were shocked at conditions the refugees were forced to live in.

New Zealand, by assisting Australia, only supports this broken system and does nothing to address why the boats continue to leave Indonesia.

As states like Australia and New Zealand make it almost impossible for "genuine refugees" to arrive by air with strict visa controls, asylum seekers are forced to go to Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. None of these countries has signed the Refugee Convention and none has any domestic framework allowing for any sort of protection for refugees.

The common theme is a period of several years where asylum seekers and refugees have no legal status, are subject to constant arrest and detention in terrible conditions, no ability to derive an income, limited access (if they are lucky) to healthcare and psycho-social services, and often with no schooling for their kids.

What would you do in that situation? Would you continue to live in hopelessness, or look for other options for you and your family?

So, while New Zealand is willing to help out Australia by taking a few asylum seekers off their hands, what about real regional co-operation?

What about a genuine attempt to work with the South East Asian countries to give them the tools to properly process refugees?

New Zealand is actually well placed to lead capacity building efforts. We have an outstanding international reputation for our asylum system and the Department of Labour - the government entity responsible for refugee issues - has a number of experienced and committed professionals who could pull together strong capacity building programmes for officials in the region.

New Zealand can and should be at the forefront of improving protection in the region more generally. In particular, our aid programme can work with civil society organisations in these countries to improve access to services, especially education and healthcare.

A rights regarding framework in South East Asia where asylum seekers and refugees were able to access a life with dignity would remove the main push factors from the region.

Regional co-operation on human rights and security issues will also help to build multilateral linkages in other strategic areas. It is hard to see a downside in such an approach.

New Zealand having a positive voice in the region will create a far greater legacy and will ultimately outlast a policy driven by short-term political expediency that fails to deal with the underlying causes it is advertised to redress.

Now is the time to move from a punitive discourse to one that looks at constructive solutions. In the end, being positive might stop the boats, improve human rights standards across the region, and be something to be proud of.

That is what New Zealanders should demand. There is no reason why we cannot be a strong and decisive player on human rights issues. Rather than catching up to Australia, we should show the way.

Michael Timmins is a New Zealand refugee lawyer who has worked globally on refugee issues.

- NZ Herald

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