Upon seeing the title of John Roughan's column for the New Zealand Herald on Saturday, I was hoping he might offer some facts about the present refugee crisis.
Though he has some admirable analysis of the situation in Germany and Italy his lack of understanding of international law and refugees leads him to many incorrect conclusions.
Roughan is right about one thing in his column - journalists have been universally on the side of refugees. All except Roughan (recall that Hosking has excused himself from journalism, and has recently been almost pro-refugee protection).
So first up, congratulations to the editors and columnists at the NZ Herald and their rival newspapers. They've seen the cold hard facts about New Zealand's anaemic response to the refugee crisis and have admirably performed the function of the fourth estate. There have been editorials supporting doubling our quota well before the present crisis.
I also understand that there may now be a need for some columnists to show a contrary position on refugees so as to mop up that small percent of readers who care little for those outside of their own skin.
But Roughan's errors are more egregious than a contrasting opinion and need to be challenged. This is particularly important as Roughan plays at being the judicious and well-researched realist.
I'll list three main errors that structure his argument.
First, Roughan claims that these are not refugees because they are not in 'urgent need or real peril'. The legal definition of refugee relies on them fleeing from persecution, as per the relevant conventions on the status of refugees. But the responsibility of states is not to host with without persecution, but with protection. It's the classic 'freedom from' versus 'freedom to' definition from Isaiah Berlin.
Roughan sees refugees being free from persecution as the relevant factor, while international law regards being free to participate in society under the protection of the state as the defining factor. And an essential part of that protection is granting people the work for themselves without relying on the government.
Think of it this way: how much protection does a refugee have in the countries surrounding Syria? Of those countries near Syria, who still host the vast majority of their refugees, only Egypt has signed both the 1951 and 1967 conventions. And even then, the UN notes that they don't have a system for recognising asylum seekers. It is testimony to the willingness of the Syrians not to emigrate that they've stuck out four years in these purgatories with little to no hope of ever being granted meaningful protection.
Turkey has signed the 1951 convention, but that limits their obligations to providing protection to European refugees. They offer temporary asylum for others, but this short-term measure does not grant the rights of protection . The same is true of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, which is why asylum seekers risk their lives to get to countries that do offer protection.
Australia, of course, has lost any sense of moral high ground with their policy of mandatory detention. Even with them accepted twenty times as many emergency refugees as New Zealand they will never be considered a leader in the region. If McCully and Key wanted to do something concrete - and relatively cost free - for refugees it would be to pressure the countries of South East Asia to offer protection to refugees. Malaysia and Thailand have strong economies and plenty of opportunities to integrate asylum seekers from the region and this would be how we could actually stop the boats.
The second point from Roughan is one of complete absurdity and shows how little he understands the issue. He claims that refugees can wait in camps until they're able to go home. The vast majority of refugees - 72 per cent according to Paul Power of the Refugee Council of Australia - aren't in camps but are in urban spaces, unprotected and trying to eke out a living with the constant fear of arbitrary imprisonment.
Where are these funded and safe camps for the Rohingya? When will Burma be safe for them to return? Where are the camps for the Hazara people? When will Afghanistan welcome them back? And what about if Assad is defeated? What will happen to the Alawites? When will they be welcome back in Syria?
But that is not even the worst part of his argument. Roughan concludes: "Those for whom it will never be safe can get asylum in countries like ours. That is how it works it we keep our heads."
Mate, this is not how it works 'if he keep our heads'. You're saying there is some orderly process for refugees to be resettled. The truth is that there is no orderly queue that provides resettlement for refugees.
Paul Power notes that if a queue system existed it would take us 191 years to get to the end of the queue. Part of the reason for this is that countries like New Zealand have only gone backwards in the refugees we have resettled. Another reason is that while other countries see this as an emergency, our so-called emergency quota is business-as-usual.
Finally, Roughan claims that the current crisis was caused by Germany having a compassionate whim, some late play to excuse them from Nazi guilt, he hints that over-rode the EU policy.
In late 2013, Sweden had already declared that any Syrian to arrive would receive residency. So the idea that Germany alone, through some need for mass atonement, caused the current move away from countries of first refuge is simply wrong.
If this critique feels threatening to the columnist it is directed at, I'd invite him to consider that distinction between freedom from persecution and the freedom that comes with active protection.
Murdoch Stephens is the spokesperson for Doing Our Bit a campaign to double New Zealand's refugee quota and funding.