The head of Australia's Refugee Council says he expects Australia will soon ask New Zealand to help get it out of trouble with the Nauru asylum seekers' centre but New Zealand should break away from Australia and use its own good record to push for change.
Paul Power, the chief executive of the Refugee Council of Australia, spoke to MPs at the Foreign Affairs select committee and urged them to consider how New Zealand could use its influence on the matter rather than working in concert with Australia.
Mr Power is also the chair of the Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Working Group on refugees. Mr Power said New Zealand was a small country and took far fewer refugees than Australia. This week, New Zealand agreed to take a further 750 Syrian refugees while Australia Prime Minister yesterday announced Australia would take an extra 12,000 refugees from Syria.
However, Mr Power said New Zealand treated refugees better.
"It's a country which has a very proud and positive record in the way refugees has been treated. And also it does not have a lot of dirty laundry that you're trying to hide from the rest of the world. So the two countries in the region which are in the best position to be honest brokers in bringing people to the table are New Zealand and the Philippines." He said both had positive records for treating refugees well.
Mr Power said Australia was likely to call for more help from New Zealand in re-settling refugees in centres such as Nauru. "In relation to Nauru I think it's pretty obvious that Australia has got itself into a real mess. I don't know how Australia is going to extract itself from the situation." He said in the past New Zealand stepped in to help, such as with the Afghan refugees picked up by the Tampa. "Maybe at some stage in the future it's probably likely New Zealand may be asked to play a role in helping Australia extract itself." He said about 85 per cent of those from Nauru had been found to be genuine refugees and Nauru did not have the capacity to re-settle them long term. He said efforts to re-settle them on Cambodia was failing.
New Zealand has the ability to use about 150 places within its annual quota of 750 to take refugees from Australia's detention centres.
Mr Power said Australia's capacity to influence the region was diminished by its hard line on the matter and the inflammatory language successive government had used. "Imagine if you're in the Indonesia Parliament or Malaysia and you get a phone call to say someone from the Australian Government would like to talk to you about refugee issues, you might think 'that clashes with my hair appointment, I'm not available.' But if someone from New Zealand was to open up the discussion, or someone from the Philippines there's more possibility of dialogue." Dr Anoop Sakumaran, the executive director of the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network, told the committee New Zealand's commitment on Syrian refugees was a step in the right direction. He said New Zealand was often clubbed in with Australia when refugees were discussed but the distinction between the two was important.
He said more than three quarters of all refugees in the world lived outside refugee camps and were technically illegal migrants meaning they could not work. Even for those in refugee camps, it could take up to four years to get a first interview to get refugee status with the UNHCR.
Figures in New Zealand have shown that up to half of all refugees had not found full-time employment after five years of settling in New Zealand. Mr Power said that was unlikely to be because of a lack of will to work. Instead there were issues about the recognition of education and training qualifications from other countries. Many employers were also suspicious about employing people with no local work experience or experience from other Western countries such as Australia and the United Kingdom.