I believe in an element of serendipity in life. That a chain of seemingly random events can shape our lives for the better. I was reminded of this recently when catching a taxi from Christchurch airport.
In early August 2001, a close friend was working at the Ports of Auckland. He attended a function on a visiting cargo vessel. It was the Norwegian captain's last trip before retiring. The captain's name was Arne Rinnan. There were many celebratory drinks.
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The ship left Auckland. Off the West coast of Australia, the ship encountered a crowded small fishing boat in distress. The vessel was sinking. It was crammed with refugees, mainly from Afghanistan. Captain Rinnan took the humane action. He rescued the human cargo. The alternative was dire.
Rinnan was then allegedly pressured by a small group of the asylum seekers to land them in Australian territory. They didn't want to be returned to Indonesia. They had already risked too much to be returned to a bleak future in a crowded refugee camp. The Howard government refused permission for the Tampa to enter Australian territorial waters despite its immediate proximity. They then accused the asylum seekers of threatening to throw their own children overboard. They landed SAS troops on the ship. They arranged for the tiny desolate Pacific island of Nauru to be used as a detention centre. It still is.
I wrote an article at the time. It was published in several outlets, suggesting it was easy for us to be morally righteous. We were less likely to be swamped by asylum seekers than the Australians. The wild Tasman sea acts as a natural moat. No asylum seekers have ever reached here by sea.
I was working at Otago University at the time. I was rung one morning by a radio show in Melbourne. They wanted to interview Professor Lyons about New Zealand's refugee policy. I was immediately live on drive time radio in Melbourne. I felt very fraudulent.
This experience lead me to do a Masters' thesis on New Zealand and the 1956 Refugee convention. I learned that after the Second World War, the horror of the Holocaust led to international shame at the treatment of Jewish asylum seekers. Many were returned to Europe to be exterminated by the Nazis. The Refugee Convention was an international law designed to protect genuine refugees from persecution in their own country. The criteria for refugee status is strict. The process to gain refugee status in New Zealand is very robust. We are not a soft touch. We have an annual quota of refugees of 1000, soon to be 1500. We are not being flooded with refugees. For a brief period I became an expert on refugee law in New Zealand.
Recently I caught a taxi from Christchurch airport. I chatted with the driver. He told me he was from Afghanistan. He had arrived 18 years ago. He said he was a refugee. He then said he had been one of those on the Tampa. He remembered Captain Rinnan as a very decent man in an incredibly difficult situation. In 2001 the New Zealand government had accepted a number of the Tampa refugees. His young wife and infant son had come almost directly. He had spent time on Nauru. They arrived here with nothing. They spent a period at the Mangere refugee centre.
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He was determined to succeed in New Zealand. He learned English. He proudly told me he now had three young kiwis. He owns his own house. He and his wife have four children. They started from nothing 18 years ago. They didn't even have shoes. He has done several years volunteer work with refugee resettlement to pay back the debt he felt. He said how grateful he was to have been allowed to start again in this country. To be able to provide a safe environment and opportunities for his children. When he dropped me off he shook my hand and thanked me for listening. I felt somewhat proud, and very lucky, to be a kiwi.
• Peter Lyons teaches economics at Saint Peter's College in Epsom.