Tough laws won't do anything to deter desperate asylum-seekers

Last week I wrote about New Zealand's bid for a seat on the UN Security Council. Our pitch makes much mention of this country being an independent voice in the world, eager to represent the interests of small nations.

We have proven this in the past, never more so than when we ended a humanitarian deadlock by taking asylum seekers from the ship Tampa. The usual claims were made about the precedent making us a destination for people smugglers - none of which came to pass.

Notwithstanding the fact that no "boat people" have yet hove into view over our horizon, what would the current Government do if faced with the arrival of war-torn refugees in our waters - being as it is, an upstanding global citizen and all? Well, we have some idea, contained in our Immigration Amendment Bill, which focuses on "mass arrivals" of foreigners, and it's not terribly kind-hearted.

It will allow our authorities to detain groups of people under mass warrant, with seemingly arbitrary powers and in some cases without recourse to lawyers. A bit like Australia does right now. We don't seem to have learned from Australia that punitive measures don't deter the desperate - and when I interviewed a Tamil refugee living in outer Auckland last year I realised why.


The woman - who escaped Sri Lanka with her family and spent time in the asylum-seeker system in Indonesia before being rehomed in New Zealand - was too terrified to be identified, even years after leaving her homeland.

Her reasons for leaving were simple. After her daughter had suffered life-threatening burns to half her body from an attack, and various relatives had been "disappeared" into white vans in the night, never to return, she knew she had to leave or face the same fate.

She left, she said, specifically because she would rather risk death on a boat across the Pacific than see her daughters raped by government soldiers. The family stole away in the middle of the night with only the clothes on their backs.

These people had to leave or die, the way they tell it, and they didn't have time to be dissuaded by legislation, whatever Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse maintains. In his view, "[They] may be less likely to endanger their lives by attempting to travel to New Zealand by sea if they know they must wait for three years and have their claim reassessed before they can apply for residence".

It's the same wrong-headed reasoning that has led to horror across the Tasman. This week two boatloads of Tamil refugees struck trouble near Australia's Christmas Island - broken down, no water or food, and at least two very sick children aboard. Immigration Minister Scott Morrison - with fellow "committed Catholic" Tony Abbott - refused to even acknowledge the catastrophe. Even children, it seems, can be left to die on a boat in Australian waters, and if not, they can be kept indefinitely in refugee detention centres with no lawyers, no oversight, and no hope.

Again, is this the way we are moving, in the direction of xenophobia, hysteria and ugliness? And is that the right path for a country that seeks to set a great example to the rest of the world, based on our enlightened common sense? As violence flares around the world, and more and more people are driven to take drastic steps, we certainly need to set our own boundaries for action, but where we once seemed to offer a great example of humanitarianism, we now copy the worst example we can find.