In the past, successive Labour and National led governments have been happy to use the poisonous term “queue jumping” to describe people trying to exercise their UN Refugee Convention-based right to reach these shores and claim political asylum. When it comes to claims for political asylum, there is no queue. All claims must be assessed and where they are well founded grounds for political persecution, asylum must be granted. Political asylum is a totally different procedure – or should be – from the UN refugee quota of 750 which New Zealand agrees to take each year. Less than a year ago, Deputy Prime Minister Bill English was happy to blur this distinction, presumably in order to whip up public hostility:
Mr. English said the New Zealand Government did have plans in place for if asylum seekers arrived in New Zealand without going through the proper United Nations processes.
“If they turn up here without going through the proper refugee process then they’re certainly trying to jump the queue on other refugees.”
No, they’re not – as even a cursory glance at the UN Refugee Convention would confirm. Similarly, the government used the bogus “queue jumping” rhetoric at a parliamentary press conference last year to justify its Immigration Amendment Bill, which aims to establish Aussie-like detention measures here when (and if) boat people ever reach New Zealand. Less than a year ago, when then-Immigration Minister Nathan Guy introduced this noxious Bill to Parliament, he strongly criticised the people-smugglers exploiting the needs of boat people, and re-stated the government’s commitment to our annual intake of 750 under the annual UN intake:
The Government, of course, is committed to upholding New Zealand’s obligations under international law and New Zealand’s reputation as a good international citizen. We will continue to accept 750 refugees per year through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees process. This is the appropriate way to come to New Zealand as a refugee and we expect proper immigration processes to be followed.
On the weekend however, the Key government suddenly did an about turn. Encouraging the people-smugglers went off the radar. New Zealand agreed to take 150 boat people currently detained by the Australians in the likes of Papua New Guinea and Nauru – and moreover, this new intake would be allowed to displace those who would otherwise have come to New Zealand via our annual UN quota. To win brownie points with the Australians, we seem willing to undermine the UN quota system and boost the people smuggling industry – at the expense of those refugees waiting in UN camps in Africa and Asia to be vetted by the current UNHCR process.
As others have already pointed out, it is illogical to free boat people from Aussie detention camps on one hand, while proceeding with legislation to imprison in detention camps any boat people who turn up here. Instead, perhaps we need to recognise the scale of a global refugee problem from which New Zealand and Australia have hitherto largely been spared – and agree to take in more, beginning by setting up adequate screening processes for evaluating claims to political asylum.
That screening process will have to recognise that the criteria for economic refugees will also have to be revisited. The reality is that poorer countries in Africa and Asia are taking in far more economic refugees than the developed countries of Australasia. We can and should be doing more. Our 750 refugee UN annual intake is better than nothing, but it is still a drop in the ocean. Amnesty International’s government relations manager Amanda Brydon has already pointed out that our response should have been to consider increasing the UN intake, and not rejigging it in the way that Gillard and Key have done. As Brydon says:
“As a country that receives so few asylum seekers arriving at its borders, New Zealand should be focusing on increasing its resettlement program. In particular, with countries like Syria, Mali and Afghanistan continuing to produce record numbers of refugees, this is not the time to be taking refugees from a country like Australia. There is no reason why the Australian Government cannot protect the refugees who arrive in their territory, instead of continuing to palm them off on neighbouring countries.”
We may well benefit from taking in more refugees. The whole founding mythology of Australia and New Zealand is that of welcoming pioneer families who were willing to uproot themselves, and who were ready to risk all on the high seas, in order to start a new life on the other side of the world. While we genuflect to that brave spirit among our forebears, we continue to turn away their modern equivalents.
There is another important aspect to this situation. While New Zealand officially commits to taking in 750 UN–mandated refugees a year, it has routinely failed to meet that figure.
The  target has been met just once in the past six years, figures released under the Official Information Act reveal. NZ Refugee Council president Dr Nagalingam Rasalingam said he was “completely shocked” to hear the country often accepts fewer than 750 refugees each year. New Zealand offered protection for refugees often traumatised by their past experiences, he said.
However, Immigration NZ has defended the low numbers. The government’s agreement with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees allowed the 750-quota to drop to as low as 675 or as high as 825. New Zealand often falls closer to the minimum mark – and has not once gone over the quota in the past six years. The regular shortfall amounted to 327 refugees spots that went unfilled in New Zealand between 2005 and 2011.
Given this situation, it could be argued that the 150 intake from the Aussie detention camps will at least ensure that something closer to the 750 figure is routinely met. Arguably though, the same result could be achieved in a better fashion by boosting the nominal UNHCR figure to 1,000, in recognition that the actual intake will almost certainly be lower.
Incidentally, doesn’t last weekend’s meeting between John Key and Julia Gillard underline just what a pushover New Zealand is when it negotiates with the outside world? With Warners over The Hobbit, we leapt to our knees, sent over the state limos, and delivered everything Warners were asking for. At the outset of the Trans Pacific Partnership meeting in Auckland last December, we told the Americans we were willing to make some changes to Pharmac – which was one of our few negotiating cards – even before the meeting began. Now, we’re offering to help out Australia by taking in some of its boat people – but are we getting anything in return? Hardly. Gillard made it very clear she would not be doing anything to redress the inequality in how expat Kiwis are treated across the Tasman, as compared to the help that we extend to Australians who come here. That’s us, every time. Unwilling (or unable) to deal, we simply cave in. To the extent that New Zealand is seen as a soft touch internationally, that problem starts at the top. Meeting a foreign leader or a foreign captain of industry just seems to make Key feel weak at the knees, every time.