It's a dark day for New Zealand - and strangely, no one has noticed. No one.

Sure, maybe a few small refugee groups who put out a one-sentence lament on Twitter, trying hard not to say the truth: That they have lost. They lost this battle and they will lose the next. But what is the real tragedy here? New Zealanders don't have a clue what we've just done.

New Zealand has just passed a law that mirrors what is probably the most disastrous Australian policy failure of the past 20 years: we have instituted mandatory detention of asylum seekers arriving by boat.

Though it is perfectly legal to arrive in any mode of transport to ask for asylum, according to 1951 UN Refugee Conventions we signed over 50 years ago, despite that promise, we will now imprison these most desperate people first - and ask questions later.


Their crime? Arriving in a group of more than 30 people - truly a head-scratcher of a legal precedent.

Never mind that New Zealand has never had a boat arrival of asylum seekers in modern history.

This policy has been birthed on easy fear, "Protect our borders! They're coming!" Never mind the truth: that our asylum seeker arrival numbers are down almost fivefold since 2000. We get a mere trickle, at roughly 300 a year, all arriving by plane.

Never mind the political reality: that it's easier to cave into pressure from your Aussie neighbours than go it humanely alone. Who knows what political goodies we will get in return for the 150 Australian refugees John Key has so magnanimously offered to take on our shores, curtailing our own UN intake by the same number.

The truth is, human rights are just not particularly fashionable right now.

There is a cold wind blowing in this part of the world - and I fear we've just caught the sickness. It is one spreading through the Five Eyes Alliance, (the US, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) and we have been the last to fall ill to it.

Mostly because the seriously mean seas that surround us have meant boat arrivals have never been our problem. They are now. Our prime minister has made it so, in an effort to get into the same inhumane lockstep as our neighbours across the ditch.

Like the Stolen Children generation, this is truly one of Australia's saddest stories. The newly reopened Pacific Solution on Nauru and Manus Islands are nothing short of modern day concentration camps. Five detainees tried to kill themselves by swimming out to sea recently, others have tried to hang themselves off the tent poles where they sleep, still others have sewn their lips together, many are now on hunger strikes or resort to self harm in utter despair. Children are also imprisoned, witnessing all this.


These people understand they have been sent there as pawns to signal others not to come. Unfortunately, research shows it just doesn't work. Arrivals flee to save their lives. Studies show many have little or no idea of the detention that awaits them. Research confirms it is regional war and conflict that push these numbers, not punitive domestic policy.

What's worse, we're invited too. Our prime minister has advertised that Australia has very generously offered to let any of our future boat arrivals be shipped to Nauru or Manus Islands.

We were the country that got it right, a model to other countries. Why? We allow folks to wait in the community for their cases to be heard - with few exceptions. This commonsense approach can be 70-90 per cent cheaper than detention.

Gaining refugee status is a complicated process that can take months, even years, with appeals. Ironically, the humane community solution conveniently also happens to be the answer that produces better-integrated, successful Kiwi citizens in the end.

Indeed, the Government has just withdrawn all funding for Auckland's only community hostel, making it likely to close before the year's end, unless someone champions it.

New Zealand has established a horrible new precedent: We have now said to the world we don't have to honour the international laws we have pledged to uphold. Countries around the world who have asylum numbers in the tens of thousands annually look at us, confounded.

I'm not sure what is more frightening: Now that this precedent has fallen, how easily others will crumble too. Or, in our innocence, that we keep telling ourselves it will never happen here.

Wake up. It has just begun.

Tracey Barnett is a columnist and on the executive board of the Auckland Refugee Council, though views expressed here are her own.
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