Bryce Edwards: Has Jacinda Ardern let down the Nauru refugees?

Bryce Edwards: Has Jacinda Ardern let down the Nauru refugees?

One of the main images to come out of the Pacific Islands Forum in Nauru was the island’s President and locals performing a song for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her baby, called “Jacinda New Star in the Sky”. You can watch the full performance on TVNZ – see: Jacinda Ardern serenaded with song written especially for her and Neve on arrival to Nauru.

Not everyone was as delighted as the Prime Minister by the authoritarian president’s performance. Australian refugee advocate Ian Rintoul went on RNZ’s Morning Report today to say he was sickened by the scene: “When I saw the performance by the Nauru President, serenading Jacinda Ardern, actually it was stomach-turning in many ways. He talks about her new baby, but says nothing about the new babies that are endangered day-in, day-out on Nauru – refugee babies that are not getting the healthcare that they need. Mothers are not getting the healthcare that they need. And to have that serenading, honestly, was a shocking performance” – see: ‘Disappointing’ Ardern did not meet Nauru refugees – Rintoul.

In the same interview, Rintoul talks about how impressed he was when Ardern initially expressed her intention to meet with refugees: “That’s what was so encouraging, initially, that she was insisting that she was going to meet with the refugees. The refugees were expecting that. It showed that she was prepared to push the envelope”.

Rintoul “says meeting with refugees would have been an opportunity to cut through the propaganda of the Nauru government.” Instead, reflecting on what Ardern has said on RNZ this morning, Rintoul says Ardern “seems to be willing to accept things that are being said by the Australian and Nauru governments at face value – like that refugees have been integrated into the community. That is just not true.” You can read and hear these statements by Ardern here: Nauru refugees: NZ doing all it can, says PM.

Ardern now claims the refugees in Nauru “have integrated into the community”, although she confirms in this interview that she didn’t actually meet any refugees and is relying on officials for her information.

The Prime Minister also explains why she chose not to talk to any refugees, arguing she wanted to protect them from having their hopes unfairly boosted, saying “I was worried about raising those expectations.”

For a full picture of what life is actually like for the refugees, the PM would be well advised to read James Harris’ account published on The Spinoff. Harris is a community engagement manager at World Vision NZ, who spent two years on Nauru “providing welfare services to asylum seekers” and came to the conclusion that “the detaining of children on Nauru amounts to nothing less than child abuse at the hands of the Australian and Nauruan governments” – see: In a few days, NZ has a chance to rescue the betrayed children of Nauru.

He writes of a 13-year-old Iranian girl smiling at him and offering the words “kia kaha” – she had been learning te reo from a New Zealand security guard.

But here’s Harris’ main point “Despite their harrowing circumstances, some of the kindest, most hospitable people I have ever met are being held on Nauru. Although they have nothing, they would still find ways to exhibit the generosity that underpins their characters and cultures. Any country would be lucky to have them. However they are trapped in a brutal system that not only doesn’t acknowledge their generosity, warm natures or hospitality; it denies their humanity altogether. These people are essentially trapped, living in conditions no human, let alone child, should have to endure.”

Such assessments are entirely in line with a report just released by the Refugee Council of Australia, which detailed how refugees are suffering extreme mental health issues as a result of their appalling situation. Many are becoming catatonic, some are dousing themselves in petrol and attempting suicide – including children as young as seven years old.

Should Jacinda Ardern have met with refugees? 

Prior to leaving for Nauru, the PM also justified her decision not to talk to any refugees, by saying “But if I meet with the individual refugees, how do we decide who they would be?”

Radio NZ provided one possibility – 24-year-old Ahmed, from Syria, who had been on the island for five years and had a desire to meet with Ardern – see: Nauru refugee tells Peters: ‘I want to have a better life’. The refugee also conveyed a message for Winston Peters: “please help save us”. Peters response to the issue is also reported: “He said he doesn’t want the forum hijacked by the refugee issue, but also said he will potentially meet with some refugees while on the island.”

Another candidate for a meeting is identified by Chris Bramwell: “An Iranian man detained on Nauru wrote to Jacinda Ardern earlier this month asking if he could meet with her when she visits Nauru. He was told by her office that would not be possible as she will be focused on the Pacific Islands Forum Leaders’ meeting” – see: PM softens language on meeting with refugees on Nauru.

Alternatively, the Prime Minister could have asked World Vision to arrange a meeting, as TVNZ’s Barbara Dreaver did. The Herald reported that “World Vision New Zealand assisted TVNZ Correspondent Barbara Dreaver to connect with refugees on Nauru while she is there covering the Pacific Islands Forum” – see: 1 News Pacific correspondent Barbara Dreaver released by police after being detained in Nauru.

This report on Dreaver’s detention by Nauru police also quotes World Vision New Zealand national director Grant Bayldon pleading with the various leaders to make a stand on the refugee crisis: “If Pacific Island Forum leaders don’t speak out on this issue it’s hard to see what the forum itself stands for.”

Should Jacinda Ardern have pushed the refugee issue harder?

Grant Bayldon was clear about the need for New Zealand to do more on the issue, explaining before the Forum that “This is an emergency” – see: Dear Prime Minister, Evacuate the kids off Nauru. He asked Ardern to bypass Australia, and negotiate directly with Nauru.

The New Zealand Herald has agreed with this approach, and argued that the absence of Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison from the forum made the task easier – see the editorial, Jacinda Ardern is obliged to raise refugees with Pacific Islands Forum host.

The newspaper notes that Ardern appeared ambivalent about raising the refugee issue, but concluded: “Whether she does or not, the issue will haunt the gathering. The island is tiny, the refugees must be conspicuous and they have sympathetic ears there today. They could ensure we are better informed.”

Now that the Nauru forum is over, The Press has expressed its disappointment in an editorial by Philip Matthews, who says it was “a squandered opportunity for New Zealand to display its principles at a global level” – see: A lost opportunity on Nauru. He argues that “political realism” meant that “an ongoing human rights crisis is no closer to an end and that politics will always come first.”

Blogger No Right Turn has also expressed his strong disappointment with the Prime Minister’s lack of action on the refugee crisis: “Any decent New Zealand Prime Minister should have taken a stand, denounced this, and done something about it: rescued the refugee children whose torture at Australian hands is driving them to suicide; offered them the free seats on the 757 which flew her there; at least met with them. But of course, Ardern did none of that” – see: Disappointed.

Finally, although there has been plenty of condemnation of the current government of Nauru, it needs to be remembered that the Micronesian island is in many ways a victim of past actions by Australia and New Zealand, and these have shaped the politics of the country today. Therefore it’s worth reading Anne Davies and Ben Doherty’s recent Guardian article, Corruption, incompetence and a musical: Nauru’s cursed history.