On John Key getting us mixed up in Australia’s problems with asylum seekers

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Asylum seekers? We’ve been here before under a National-led government. In 1999, the then-Immigration Minister Tuariki Delamere used the spectre of 120 Chinese boat people coming over the horizon to rush through Immigration Act changes that allowed for mass, indefinite detention of asylum seekers. According to the advice relied on by Delamere (presumably, it came from security services here and overseas) these boat people had the ‘declared intention’ of reaching New Zealand, and were due to arrive sometime after Sunday, June 20, 1999. The legislation passed, but the boat people never turned up.

John Key now shows every sign of being just as spookable. He seems set on getting New Zealand involved in the Australian election battle over asylum seekers. In the process, Key would be helping out a Labour government via his buying into Julia Gillard’s notion of a regional processing centre based in Timor Leste, a camp that would detain and process any asylum seekers arriving by sea.

Among other things, Key’s compliance is an electoral gift to Julia Gillard – who has been struggling to look tougher than Kevin Rudd on asylum seekers, but not quite as heartless as her opponent Tony Abbott. Thanks to Key readiness to climb aboard, she can now paint this move as a regional solution, and – presumably – shift some of the costs of opening and operating such a processing centre onto us .

Questions, questions.
(1) Who would pay to open and operate the centre in Timor, a country which has no capacity to handle such an influx – and how much will it cost New Zealand ?
(2) Why should New Zealand be alarmed about the imminent arrival of boat people here, when such boats have been heading to Western Australia, thousands of kilometers from our shores ? Before buying into this plan, Key needs to share with the New Zealand public the information that convinces him boat people pose an imminent, major threat to New Zealand.
(3) How does such a processing centre – and the interceptions by force that they entail – square with our obligations under the UN Refugee Convention, which allows for asylum seekers to seek and reach a country of refuge unimpeded, and make their case for asylum?

Australia’s interceptions at sea and the flouting of the Refugee Convention that they involve have brought that country into a good deal of international disrepute. Why would New Zealand want to share in the sort of opprobrium that has been heaped on successive Australian governments for their interception and internment of asylum seekers? Arguably, by getting New Zealand involved in an activity of this sort, Key could be committing a violation of the SIS Act 1969, which in its short title defines “security” in these terms :

Security means—
(a) The protection of New Zealand from acts of espionage, sabotage, and subversion, whether or not they are directed from or intended to be committed within New Zealand:
(b) The identification of foreign capabilities, intentions, or activities within or relating to New Zealand that impact on New Zealand’s international well-being or economic well-being:
(c) The protection of New Zealand from activities within or relating to New Zealand that—
(i) Are influenced by any foreign organisation or any foreign person; and
(ii) Are clandestine or deceptive, or threaten the safety of any person; and
(iii) Impact adversely on New Zealand’s international well-being or economic well-being

Yep, this looks like a breach of both (b) and (c, iii) in that such activity culd well adversely impact on our international wellbeing and with it, our economic wellbeing. After all, neither Australia nor New Zealand is exactly bursting at the seams with refugee claimants, as this Australian news story indicated yesterday:

[Australia] receives a tiny proportion of the world’s asylum seekers, around 6,500 last year compared to almost 290,000 for Europe and 82,000 in the United States and Canada combined, according to the U.N. refugee agency. Less than 2 percent of them arrive illegally by boat.

Right. So that is 2% of 6.500 people arrive by boat. And Timor plainly cannot cope with such a centre, unaided, as the same news story indicated :

East Timor’s Deputy Prime Minister Jose Luis Guterres said the government was considering Gillard’s plan, but noted his fledgling country’s lack of capacity to run such a center, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported.

“We have so many issues that we have to deal with and bringing another problem, another issue to the country, I don’t think it’s wise for any politician to do it,” Guterres was quoted as saying.

The [Australian] opposition is campaigning on a return to an earlier policy that detained asylum seekers in camps on small Pacific island countries without U.N. oversight, the so-called “Pacific Solution.” Many asylum seekers spent years languishing in the camps under the plan, which was heavily criticized by the U.N. and others.

Refugee advocates reacted cautiously to Gillard’s plan and called for more detail, noting some similarities to the earlier contentious system.“If what the government has in mind is simply a re-badged Pacific solution then this is of course unacceptable” and at odds with international conventions, said Claire Mallinson of London-based Amnesty International.

Does John Key know whether the Gillard plan would be any different from John Howard’s much criticized “Pacific solution” – and if so, in what ways does the Gillard plan significantly differ? How will such a centre avoid becoming a detention camp in which asylum seekers and their spouses and children may well languish for years?

As things stand, the current situation regarding boat people in the region seems no worse than in the 1990s, which didn’t exactly result in the Lucky Country being submerged under waves of asylum seekers clambering up its beaches. The reality is that Australia and New Zealand accept a tiny proportion of the world’s refugees, and very few of this trickle arrive by boat. If the argument comes down to one of resources… wouldn’t it be cheaper to process boat people if and when a few of them actually arrive here? Rather than paying into the cost of establishing and maintaining a detention camp (and its related legal and deportation costs) that will be 99% filled with refugees who were actually headed for Australia?

There seems no reason why New Zealand should rush into being part of Gillard’s version of the “Pacific solution” for what is now – and for the foreseeable – purely a problem for Australia to resolve, and that mainly by living up to its international responsibilities. This should not mean unloading the cost onto that nice, gullible chap from New Zealand, and the New Zealand taxpayer.


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