The Cabinet's response yesterday to the Syrian refugee crisis is no more than a token gesture. But public opinion was seeking no more. Nobody suggested this country had the capacity to take more than a few hundred of the million or more Syrians now surging into Europe. But a country with a refugee intake as low as New Zealand's 750 a year certainly had a capacity to do more.
The additional 600, plus 150 within the present annual intake, is to be spread over the next three years. That makes it more than a temporary concession to heart-rending scenes on television over the past week. Yesterday's decision effectively increases our refugee quota by 100 next year and a further 500 by 2018. By then the increased quota surely will have been made permanent.
Once the extra accommodation and services are established, and the country has proven capable of absorbing 1000 refugees a year, it would make no sense to scale back to a level that has been too low for too long. The conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa that have caused this crisis are not new and will not be soon resolved.
People have been fleeing them for five years, crossing borders to the relative security of Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. This year refugees from Libya have set out in crowded boats for Italy, which appealed to its European Union partners to help. Germany responded with an announcement last month that it would no longer enforce an EU rule requiring asylum seekers to be dealt with in the first EU state they reached. That was the trigger for Syrians in Turkey to set out by land or sea, many of them on foot, breaking down border fences, defying police cordons, crowding on to trains bound for Germany.
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News coverage, especially the photo of a police officer carrying the drowned body of a Kurdish boy on a Greek beach, has evoked powerful public sympathy everywhere. The welcome will have been heard by millions still sheltering in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, and those yet to flee Syria, Iraq and other war-torn parts of the region. The flood has just begun.
The turnaround in western popular opinion is remarkable. Until recently anti-immigration movements such as the UK Independence Party and France's National Front appeared to have political momentum in most countries. In the United States, Donald Trump has been leading the race for the Republican presidential nomination with proposals to fence the Mexican border. It is not yet clear whether the new generosity has been felt in America but has brought a response from the Australian Government and ours.
The proposals John Key put to his Cabinet yesterday were possibly the minimum that might satisfy public sympathy. But this is not simply a selfless gesture on any country's part. Most of the Syrians walking into Europe are clearly young, vigorous, probably well educated and resourceful. Given new opportunities this far from their homeland they may stay and add a great deal to New Zealand. We have the room, we need a growing population and we will be glad to receive them.
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