John Key used the 'C' word in Australia last week.

When Australian reporters asked if New Zealand would consider accepting 37 babies due to be sent to Nauru's refugee prison, he gave a qualified yes.


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He would consider reviving a stalled 2013 deal he made with then Prime Minister Julia Gillard in Queenstown to take 150 of Australia's refugees every year. He said it was sensible and yes, "compassionate".

There it was, the word that shall not say its name - at least not without the international mud fight of vitriol that surrounds Australia's inhumane offshore refugee prisons.

Australia's penchant for locking up children and babies has had particularly devastating consequences too. More than 35 per cent have been diagnosed as moderately to severely mentally ill, 44 per cent see mental health nurses.

There have been 67 cases of reported child abuse, 30 against the staff, though no staff member has been charged. Also reported has been sexual abuse, suicide attempts and self-harm among children as young as age 5.

Surely, this could be New Zealand's chance to make a difference. We could certainly bring a few more families into a safe, new life. We did it for those on the Tampa ship.

Our pay-off has been excellent Kiwi citizens 12 years on. This could be an extension of the groundswell of support to double our refugee quota when it comes under review in the next few months.

But there are some real moral landmines to navigate from the Queenstown deal first. In exchange for taking 150 Australian refugees annually, we were invited to send any future boat arrivals to Nauru or Manus Island too.

Shipping refugees to proxy prisons in third countries has been internationally condemned. New Zealand should publicly denounce this. So far, we have been silent.


We are now given Australian intelligence on potential boat arrivals to New Zealand. This kind of "intelligence sharing" would have alerted our Government to last year's boatload of 65 people who never made it here.

This was the same boat that Australian officials allegedly paid traffickers US$32,000 to turn back to Indonesia.

New Zealand has to be very careful of what the Australian Navy does, ostensibly with our quiet endorsement. Australia, the country that pays the most lip service to stopping human traffickers, has now become people smugglers itself. This cannot be done in our name.

We aren't the only ones Australia is now trying to sell their human rights obligations to in the region. Besides asking New Zealand to take its refugees off its hands for quiet political concessions or cash, Australia has approached Niue, the Solomon Islands, PNG, Cambodia, Philippines and Malaysia.

Prosperous Australia has created a dangerous new paradigm: selling human lives to poorer nations who need the cash. It's working too.

What's worse, these nations are agreeing to take Australian refugees for political and financial gain-not UNHCR refugees-thus undermining the international humanitarian system, setting another dangerous precedent.

If each nation started accepting refugees from their favourite trading partners at the expense of the UN's resettlement system, who knows how many Mexicans we would be taking from America next year? Or Falun Gong from China the next.

So how can we do the right thing, but not condone Australia's attempts to contaminate the region with shipping families against their will to third countries, left indefinitely in inhumane prisons?

New Zealand should indeed open the door to the desperate refugees abused on Nauru, Manus and Christmas Island, but with very specific provisos.

Our Prime Minister needs to publicly call out Australia to stop selling human lives in our region and shutter the camps. As close allies, we are one of the best nations in the world to make that statement count.

Our Prime Minister should change his offer to take 150 refugees from Australia every year and instead broker the disassembly of the camps through the UNHCR system, affirming that the UNHCR system cannot be undermined through big-wallet political horse-trading.

Further, our 2013 offer would have reduced our own paltry UNHCR quota-itself an embarrassingly small number-from 750 to 600. This cannot stand.

If we are to take these refugees, this should be in addition to doubling our UNHCR quota (at the very least), itself a stingy number that hasn't budged in almost three decades now.

Last week, 37 baby cribs were assembled on Bondi beach to protest at Australia's impending transfer of innocent lives to indefinite Nauru imprisonment.

Those babies never asked to be born into this. New Zealand can transform these new lives immeasurably if we find the political strength to break our silence and lead the way.

Tracey Barnett is a columnist, author and creator of the refugee awareness initiative WagePeaceNZ,