The man who usually cuts my hair is a lawyer from the Middle East living in New Zealand as a refugee. I vividly recall him once saying the situation in his homeland "is like our World War Two". I also recall my difficulty looking him in the eye when the topic turned to New Zealand's refugee quota of just 750 souls per year.
Princeton philosopher Philip Pettit recently proposed what he calls the "eyeball test" of freedom: "Can a person look another in the eye without fear of intimidation or rebuke? If not, then the person is not truly free." By this standard my interaction in the barbershop tells me something is quite wrong.
In a nutshell it is this. In the Syrian refugee crisis we face a global problem that needs a global solution. As a nation of immigrants that has been enriched by past flows of refugees, as a participant in the world's refugee-producing conflicts, and as a member of the United Nations Security Council, New Zealand should be in the very vanguard of global action to protect refugees. But it isn't.
Past waves of refugee migration have enriched New Zealand immeasurably. Nineteenth century evacuees from Dickensian Europe helped build this country. Refugees from both World Wars made immense contributions to every sphere of New Zealand life, from business to the arts, culture, science and politics.
Among them were the great philosopher of science Karl Popper, who fled fascist Austria to write his famous book, The Open Society and Its Enemies, in Christchurch - the same city where his fellow Austrian refugee Ruth Lazar raised her son, our current prime minister, John Key.
In the same spirit in which these past refugees were welcomed and valued and given access to public-sector employment and state housing, New Zealand should now welcome today's refugees, and adequately fund the organizations providing services to help them heal, adapt and thrive here.
More broadly than this, New Zealand should act because it has helped create a world in which there are more refugees than ever before. Our involvement in Western military interventions in North Africa and the Middle East stretch much further back than the invasion of Iraq, right back into the era of the British Empire, whose post-World War One officials drew the arbitrary borders that ISIS is now fighting to erase. We are part of the problem and we have a moral duty to help to fix it.
An essential part of the solution lies in upholding the international refugee protection system, a system based on the principle of burden-sharing. This system stands in peril. In Europe, all but a few leaders are so weary of their shared currency and their shared mobility that they seem too jaded even to recognize their shared humanity with the dead children washing up along their beaches. Shame on them, for the refugee system was created so the world could save Europe from its own World War Two refugee crisis.
With Europe paralyzed by divisions and sinking once again beneath a tide of fascist rhetoric, the United Nations is now an even more important venue for multilateral leadership. And as the outgoing United Nations humanitarian coordinator in Lebanon said recently to the Washington Post, "It's a humanitarian issue, but it's also a security issue. Poor people who are desperate are inconsistent with security and stability."
With a seat at the United Nations Security Council and a former Prime Minister at the head of UNDP, New Zealand is on the centre of the world stage at a pivotal moment. We are a small and distant country with few chances to make a difference on a global scale, but we have always tried to punch above our weight. Now is our chance to do so. We should fulfill our role on the Security Council by showing moral leadership and commitment to multilateral action.
New Zealand should set an example to Europe and the rest of the world by raising our refugee quota substantially and urging our Security Council partners and other countries around the world to do the same, as a matter of urgency. In service of our values and our interests, it is the right thing to do. Ask yourself: if we cannot manage such a small measure in a time of crisis, will you pass the eyeball test?
Alan Gamlen is a senior lecturer in human geography at Victoria University and editor-in-chief of the journal Migration Studies, published by Oxford University Press.
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