Brian Rudman

Brian Rudman is a Herald columnist looking at Auckland and national issues

Brian Rudman: NZ can afford to care more about refugees

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Against UNHCR advice, our Immigration Minister wants to have power to detain boat people for six months.

Prime Minister John Key. Photo / Christine Cornege
Prime Minister John Key. Photo / Christine Cornege

With Prime Minister John Key's family background, you might have expected a little more compassion and understanding on the matter of refugees.

His Jewish mother, Ruth, fled Austria as a teenager following Hitler's invasion in 1938. She and other family members ended up in Britain, crossing the border with dodgy visas granted after her aunt, Lottie, paid a British soldier to marry her.

Refugees do desperate things to survive. Like entering into marriages of convenience to save one's family from death in a gas chamber. Or paying charlatans their life savings to take them on a leaky boat to Australia.

Ruth found a job as a milliner and then signed up with the ATS, the women's branch of the British Army. She was lucky her son wasn't the British PM of the day; she and her family might have found themselves incarcerated in a tent prison-camp on some remote island off Scotland.

That's the solution to Australia's refugee problem Mr Key bought into during his Queenstown tete-a-tete with Australian counterpart Julia Gillard last weekend.

In return for taking 150 asylum seekers a year off their hands, it appears New Zealand will be allowed to fly any boat people who do succeed in making the long and perilous voyage to New Zealand, off to processing in an Australian refugee detention centre on Nauru Island or Manus Island, Papua New Guinea.

The Prime Minister is rubbing his hands with pleasure, claiming victory because the 150 will come out of New Zealand's existing annual 750 refugee quota, meaning no extra cost is involved.

Putting aside the rights and wrongs of Australia's "mandatory detention" refugee-processing methods for a moment, New Zealanders should be ashamed about the comparative numbers of refugees each country accepts.

New Zealand has a cap of 750, which Mr Key is not willing to lift, even to help out Ms Gillard. However, for several years this quota has not even been filled.

Between 2005 and 2011, the shortfall amounted to 327 refugee spots. Compare this to Australia, which last August, to deter people smuggling, upped its annual refugee quota from 13,750 to 20,000.

On a population basis, Australia is welcoming more than five times as many refugees each year as New Zealand.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates there were 43.7 million forcibly displaced people worldwide at the end of 2010. No doubt the numbers haven't changed much. Of these, 27.5 million were internally displaced persons, 15.4 million were refugees and 837,500 were asylum seekers. Here in God's Own, would it be so hard to welcome a few more of the tired, the poor, the "huddled masses yearning to breathe free" of Statue of Liberty fame.

But instead of welcoming more, Immigration Minister Nathan Guy is trying to force through a bill giving him the power to detain for up to six months any refugees who arrive in groups of 10 or more. He says if New Zealand doesn't follow Australia's lead in locking up boat people, we'll be seen as a soft touch, and people smugglers will target New Zealand instead. Even Julia Gillard considered this far-fetched on her recent visit, but both Mr Key and Mr Guy continue to scare-monger.

Mr Guy's bill perpetuates the Australian construct of "queue-jumping", the fiction that someone adventurous or desperate enough to risk all by boarding a leaky boat into the unknown is somehow less worthy of refugee status than someone who remains trapped in an unauthorised refugee slum in Indonesia or Malaysia.

The latest Australian policy, which the Guy bill tries to ape, is that any refugee arriving by boat, with or without family, will be transferred to a "regional processing centre" in Nauru or Papua New Guinea and left to rot in bleak, fenced, tent camps. An official Australian statement headed, "Australia by boat? NO ADVANTAGE", says boat people's claims "will be processed no faster than if they'd used regular options".

Last week the UNHCR demanded that no more children be detained on remote Manus Island, declaring the detention of asylum seekers on a mandatory and indefinite basis, without possibility for review, amounted to "arbitrary detention which is inconsistent with international human rights law".

The UNHCR report, which followed a visit last month, said the living conditions for most of the 221 detainees on Manus were harsh and, for some, inadequate.

Amnesty International's refugee expert, Dr Graham Thom, after a visit to the Nauru camp in November, called the conditions "cruel, inhuman and degrading", with 387 men cramped into five rows of leaking tents "suffering from physical and mental ailments - creating a climate of anguish as the repressively hot monsoon season begins". Dr Thom said "the news that five years could be the wait time for these men under the Government's 'no advantage' policy added insult to injury", with one man attempting to take his life while the Amnesty group were visiting. This is the hell-hole Mr Key is embracing.

Amnesty International calls for a regional approach towards refugees in Asia-Pacific grounded on principles of international human rights law that focuses on durable solutions. It proposes that Australia - and by implication New Zealand - work with governments and NGOs in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Bangladesh to gain legal recognition for refugees and provide better facilities there.

While we fuss about coping with 750 refugees a year, Malaysia is host to between 90,000 and 170,000, Thailand 150,000, Bangladesh 200,000-500,000 and Indonesia around 14,000.

Among them could be the mother of a future prime minister. That's if we cared a little more.

- NZ Herald

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