Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: It's time for NZ to do the right thing again

We felt good for doing the right thing then. It's time we did it again. Photo / Peter Bromhead
We felt good for doing the right thing then. It's time we did it again. Photo / Peter Bromhead

It's time to revive the Tampa spirit and rescue the refugees our Australian neighbours have sent off to rot in hellish prison camps on remote islands like Nauru and Manus.

A leaked United Nations refugee agency report says conditions on Manus are "equivalent to a maximum security prison".

On Nauru, the report says: "It appears that post traumatic distress disorder (PTSD) and depression have reached epidemic proportions . . . UNHCR anticipates that mental illness, distress and suicide will continue to escalate in the immediate and foreseeable future."

The refugees are not only being treated cruelly and inhumanely by the Australians, but they're also subject to random attacks by locals.

Adding to the insanity is that according to Labour senator Lisa Singh, who is on secondment to the United Nations agency, it is costing Australian taxpayers $610,000 per year per refugee to inflict this cruelty on the defenceless refugees.

The leaked UN report follows a similarly damning report from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International in August which argued the refugee men, women and children, forcibly transferred to bleak Nauru three years ago, were being used by the Australians as a deliberate policy to deter further asylum seekers from arriving in the country by boat.

Amnesty International's Anna Neistat said "few other countries go to such lengths to deliberately inflict suffering on people seeking safety and freedom." Yet we, as a country, say nothing.

If Fiji leader Frank Bainimarama, who starts an official visit to Auckland today, had done what our Australian cousins are doing to uninvited boat people, I'm sure our government's response would have been severe. And rightly so. But with the Australians we've turned a blind eye. Worse, the Key government was afflicted by the same paranoia.

In 2013 it rushed through laws allowing the detention of refugees for six months or more who turned up in groups of ten or more. The Government had caught the "boat people" panic sweeping Australia, even though the closest a refugee craft came to New Zealand was the Indian Ocean.

This week, as the television news diverts from the horrors of Syrian civilians being targeted by Russian jets, to the plight of citizens of Mosul caught up in the United States-backed attempt to seize that Iraqi city from Isis terrorists, we tend to forget the awfulness being inflicted by our Australian neighbours on refugees unlucky enough to have thought escaping to this part of the world would bring an end to their suffering.

Back in 2013, at the height of the panic, New Zealand did offer to help Australia by taking 150 refugees a year from the Manus and/or Nauru camps.

The Australians rejected the offer, believing it would provide an incentive for other refugees and the Indonesian people smugglers to restart their activities.

Last month the Australian government seemed to have weakened slightly, suggesting we make the offer directly to the Nauru government. But Michael Woodhouse, the New Zealand Minister of Immigration rejected the nudge.

This seems ridiculously nit-picking. If the New Zealand government has decided it is willing to rescue some of the Nauru-trapped refugees, then it's Kafkaesque to refuse to take them indirectly through the Nauru authorities, instead of directly from the Australians. One things for sure, the traumatised refugees won't care.

They just want to get out of the hell the Australians have put them in.

If it means we have to go directly to the Nauruans and ask for some or all of the 410 refugees and asylum seekers, currently incarcerated under their control, then for goodness sake let's get on with it.

We've been happily letting 5500 dependent parents of new citizens into the country each year - recently reduced to 20000 a year - without the welfare system collapsing, so 410 refugees is hardly going to be a problem. If the Tampa exercise is anything to go by, it will be just the reverse.

We all felt good when the Clark government offered homes to 133 of the Afghani boat people refugees - mostly boys - stranded off the Australian coast, and banned from stepping ashore.

We gave them citizenship and encouraged family members to join them.

We felt pride as they emerged as doctors, civil engineers, police officers and nurses. We felt good for doing the right thing then. It's time we did it again.

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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