Susan Devoy: NZ politicians need to be as brave as migrant children

Right now is the time to demonstrate why we deserve to sit on the UN Security Counci. Photo / Dean Purcell.
Right now is the time to demonstrate why we deserve to sit on the UN Security Counci. Photo / Dean Purcell.

I spent a lot of last week with New Zealanders who are former refugees, migrants and followers of the Islamic faith. It was a week like no other.

After a gunman opened fire in a crowded gay nightclub in Orlando murdering more than 50 people, Muslim Kiwi leaders moved quickly, issuing a joint statement with my colleague, Human Rights Commissioner and LGBTI rights advocate Richard Tankersley. Together they condemned hatred, homophobia and intolerance.

They did so because even though no one really knew the gunman's motivations, some people - like NZ First leader Winston Peters and US President hopeful Donald Trump - want us to think that we need to fear refugees, migrants and followers of the Islamic faith. They want us to believe that people coming to live here are more likely to break our laws, even though this is not borne out by the statistics. These hysterical claims are more about drama and less about data.

Not long after the news from Orlando broke, the New Zealand Government increased our annual refugee quota for the first time in 30 years. But instead of doubling it to 1500, it was announced that an extra 250 people from 2018 will be able to leave their refugee camps forever and become New Zealanders. The former refugees I was with when the news broke, shrugged and nodded.

They were disappointed, because like me they'd been hoping for a bigger number, but they were also grateful that at least 250 more lives, 250 people who will be saved.

The announcement was a step in the right direction but it was a very small, very politically safe step that was three decades in the making.

Right now is the time to demonstrate why we deserve to sit on the UN Security Council and why we are chairing next months resettlement talks led by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. We can and we must do better, it is time for our politicians to be as courageous as some of the unforgettable children and people I've met who have looked death in the eye and survived because of our refugee quota.

Our newest Kiwis cry their eyes out when they proudly sing the national anthem.

When politicians demand that refugees salute our flag and culture, their cries make me angry. They've obviously never been to the Mangere Refugee Centre where our newest Kiwis cry their eyes out when they proudly sing the national anthem in te reo and in English or when their youngsters burst on to the stage to perform a waiata and a haka.

Towards the end of the week while I was walking to Parihaka with Andrew Judd and others on the Taranaki Peace March, news came through from the UK that a British MP who regularly stood up for the human rights of migrants and refugees had been murdered by a man who allegedly shouted "Britain first!" before stabbing and shooting her.

Needless to say, New Zealand's British community leaders have not made a public statement condemning his extremist, violent actions. Neither are any of our politicians calling for all British people to be screened before they enter New Zealand - even though the overwhelming majority of migrants on work visas are coming here from the United Kingdom and Europe not China or India.

However, this past week has made me feel very proud to be a New Zealander as thousands of Kiwis and scores of NGOs have taken to the streets and to social media to continue to remind us of our own humanity. Standing up for others when no one else will, demanding that others less fortunate than ourselves get a fair go, embracing ethnic diversity and not being scared of it: these are New Zealand values.

When our grandchildren look back in years to come, my hope is that they immediately recognise that these things represent our identity as New Zealanders.

- NZ Herald

Dame Susan Devoy is Race Relations Commissioner.

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