Bryce Edwards: Time to act on refugee crisis

Bryce Edwards: Time to act on refugee crisis

The Prime Minister’s current strategy over the Manus Island refugees is probably not sustainable. Jacinda Ardern’s preferred tactic is to continue with “talking” at the moment. She’s done this by engaging with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, and speaking out publicly at the APEC summit in Vietnam about the crisis.

Some think this has proved ineffective, and more action is now needed by the New Zealand government. Others argue that all the talk has actually been harmful, and it’s time for the Government to step back from damaging fights with New Zealand’s closest ally. So, what is the best course of action – move from talking to action, or pull back from irritating Australia?

Below are the arguments for the New Zealand government taking a stronger line. Tomorrow I’ll round up the case for New Zealand pulling back from a campaign that is raising the ire of the Australian government.

The case for “less talk, more action”

Peace activist Jessie Anne Dennis has put the case for stronger action by New Zealand, saying “Now it’s time to swap compassionate words for life-saving action. The situation for refugees on Manus Island is a humanitarian crisis. The New Zealand government’s response to this so far has been to recycle platitudes while doing as little as it can” – see: Words are cheap. Now Ardern must take real action to save the Manus Island refugees.

Dennis argues for New Zealand to cut Australia out of the equation, and directly save the abandoned refugees: “We don’t need to ask Australia’s permission to help these people. Australia has all but abandoned these people after illegally detaining them for years in conditions amounting to torture. New Zealand can bring some sanity back to this situation by helping these people now. The new government likes to talk a lot about compassion and kindness. But what they have done in the last few days is repeat a cynical deal that John Key made with Julia Gillard in 2013.”

Similarly, Damon Rusden says this should be Ardern’s “time to shine and walk the talk” – see: The politics of principle.

A number of prominent Australians are now calling for New Zealand to take stronger action over the Manus Island refugee crisis. These individuals also want our government to intervene directly, bypassing Australia and working with Papua New Guinea and the United Nations – see the Herald’s Leading Aussies plea with PM Jacinda Ardern to save Manus refugees. Signatories to this open letter include “former ministers, heads of state departments, a former chief justice, professors, barristers, and refugee and surgeon Munjed Al Muderis”.

Refugee advocates and politicians in Papua New Guinea are asking New Zealand to intervene. This is explained in depth, in Eleanor Ainge Roy’s Guardian newspaper article, Manus Island: New Zealand urged to bypass Australia to resolve refugee crisis. In this, a representative of the Refugee Council for New Zealand asserts that this country has a “humanitarian obligation” to go directly to PNG.

The CEO of the Asylum Seekers Support Trust in Auckland is quoted saying, “We are a wealthy country, we can find that support if we really need to and this is a crisis, so it would be good to see New Zealand step in and show its humanitarian colours… I think the NZ government has made all the right noises. It is a very quick test of whether they are prepared to put their money where their mouth is. I have hope that they will do more.”

Blogger No Right Turn has been particularly critical of the lack of progress on the Manus Island situation. Following Ardern’s first trip to Australia, he accused the PM of Rolling over for Australia. He was especially troubled by Ardern’s justification for not taking stronger action due to Malcolm Turnbull’s claim to be considering New Zealand’s offer to take 150 refugees while also dealing with Trump.

The blogger pointed out the problem with this: “Australia isn’t ‘actively considering’ anything. Instead it is literally trying to starve refugees to death to force them to give up their claims. Donald Trump is not going to rescue Australia’s victims. So we have to. And if that means going around Australia and negotiating directly with PNG, then so be it – because people are going to die if we don’t. That’s what’s at stake here. A leader with a clear moral vision would see that. Instead, Ardern is giving us mealy-mouthed bullshit. So much for her and her government’s principles.”

Following on from this, he blogged that there are no barriers to New Zealand going directly to PNG over the crisis: “The good news is that, in theory (and explicitly in PNG, because they Are Not Being Detained), the refugees are free to leave to any country which wishes to take them. We should call Australia on that. And if they don’t like us offering a new home to 150 people, then we should offer one to 500” – see: Bring them here. See his latest post, We need to do more than this.

Can New Zealand take more refugees?

Many are now calling for New Zealand to do more generally about refugees, especially given the international scale of the problem. Today, University of Otago political scientist Vicki Spencer writes in the ODT that New Zealand’s refugee policy is not necessarily more progressive than Australia’s: “our inaction contributes to the suffering of refugees, as do the governments they are fleeing from. So let’s not fool ourselves. The cruelty underpinning Australia’s detention policy is just as evident in New Zealand’s refugee quota. Both exacerbate the pain when we can do better” – see: NZ should take more refugees.

Spencer points out that New Zealand’s refugee quota – even with announced extensions – compares very poorly to the number of refugees taken by countries like Australia: in New Zealand, the ratio of refugees is 0.02% of New Zealand’s population, and in Australia it’s 0.07%.

And today, academics Sharon Harvey and Sorowar Chowdhury suggest we help those people being pushed out of Myanmar – see: NZ urgently needs to take more Rohingya refugees.

Some of the arguments against accepting more refugees are dealt with by the head of Amnesty International New Zealand, Grant Bayldon – see: Seeking asylum is a legal right. Could somebody tell Mike Hosking?

Will New Zealand intervene in Manus Island?

New Zealand’s PM has said that it’s preferable to deal with Australia over the Manus Island refugees, rather than PNG. Vernon Small explains that “Australia had done the initial screening of the refugees”, and therefore Ardern says going direct to PNG would not “add any haste to the issue” – see: Jacinda Ardern steps up pressure on Malcolm Turnbull over refugee offer.

Instead, the New Zealand government has decided to donate money to help deal with the situation in the meantime – see Vernon Small’s NZ to give $3m to help Manus Island refugees, PM claims progress on offer.

Ardern has publicised her attempts to continue to pressure the Australian government. She has said that she has been seeking a “substantive” meeting with Malcolm Turnbull to follow up on New Zealand’s offer. And while in Asia, Ardern definitely had some sort of meeting in “passing”, but it’s still not clear how “substantive” this was, with journalists reporting that “Ardern has been given the brush-off” – see Audrey Young and Derek Cheng’s Ardern snubbed by Aussie PM over Manus Island talks.

Some argue that by going down the path of having more talks and negotiations with Australia, New Zealand might actually get a worse deal. Patrick Gower has reported that by letting the US choose the refugees it wants to take, New Zealand will be left with the remainder: “New Zealand believes the United States will take ‘higher quality’ refugees off Manus first, leaving New Zealand with poorer quality. It’s believed that the need is urgent and should be done now” – see: Revealed: The Manus Island refugee deal that Ardern has offered Turnbull.

Furthermore, New Zealand’s talks with Turnbull appear to have resulted in Ardern agreeing that any Manus Island refugees taken by New Zealand would be banned from being able to travel to Australia. Gower reports that “This has previously been resisted, with official concerns that it would create a small group of ‘second-class citizens’ in New Zealand that don’t enjoy free access to Australia.”

Finally, to see what former refugees settled in New Zealand think about the current situation, see Abbas Nazari’s As a Tampa refugee, I have seen first-hand the impact when NZ takes moral leadership, and Aziz Al-Sa’afin’s Manus Island is all of our shame to bear.