New Zealand's Inaction and Deception on Refugees Under International Pressure
New Zealand’s continued refusal to do more to help the world address the worst refugee crisis since World War II appears to be coming under international pressure. US President Barack Obama called for a ‘collective effort’ and for richer developed countries like us to bear a bigger share of the burden for re-homing the record number of displaced people at the UN Summit on Refugees and Migrants in September. New Zealand did not pledge any additional support at the summit or subsequently and continues to grossly underperform in meeting our international obligations in this collective effort compared to other developed nations.
We cannot continue to hide behind our small size, our isolation or a supposed lack of resources to do more. New Zealand does have the capacity to do more to help the global efforts and it is important we do so for a number of reasons. Not only, is it the right thing to do from a humanitarian and international solidarity perspective, but doing so could even benefit our economy and society in the long run. In short the government’s continued inaction, deception and excuses are looking thinner by the day as this crisis continues.
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) Global Trends Report stated that there were a record high of 65.3 million displaced people in 2015, meaning that nearly one in every hundred people worldwide were either refugees, asylum seekers or internally displaced peoples. This is undeniably a global crisis of ‘emergency’ proportions with the main flows coming from war-torn Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia. The developing nations of Turkey, Ethiopia and Jordan, as well as the EU nations and other leaders in the Western world are bearing the burden of our inaction.
This crisis also has global roots, so it is the responsibility of all responsible nations to contribute to a solution. Syria is being consumed by a proxy war of superpowers vying for dwindling fossil fuels and water resources in a region destabilised by climate change, water scarcity and radicalised by decades of neoliberal restructuring and war. As an enthusiastic member of the neoliberal policy project, New Zealand has contributed to this situation as much as any nation. We are complicit by way of our support for a global economy fuelled by resource extraction ongoing wars and arms sales.
Our Weak response
A recent Oxfam study shows that New Zealand gave just 15 per cent of the aid that we should have contributed for Syria (half of 1 per cent of our total aid budget) and only 37 per cent of the refugee resettlement places we should have. Our government’s minor adjustment to the refugee quota in June 2016 received criticism from across the political and media spectrum for tinkering with numbers without making substantial increases while refugees continue to suffer.
To put our efforts in perspective we only need to look at what is being done by other developed nations in comparison. Murdoch Stevens of the Doing our bit campaign has consistently held the government to account over the refugee quota issue over the past year. His research indicates that we are currently ranked about 94th place globally in the per capita acceptance of displaced people at around 0.3 refugees per 1000 citizens, far behind the likes of Sweden (80 times more than us), Germany (67 times more than us). Even nations closer in size to us such as Ireland do far better than we do taking in 1.3 refugees for every 1000 citizens compared to our 0.3 % (yes the same Ireland that was virtually bankrupted by the recent financial crisis.) Stevens points out even highly xenophobic Australia accepts three times as many refugees as us when adjusted for population. “Their quota will have risen to 18’500 in the time it takes for ours to limp to 1000”. Meanwhile, the USA has pledged to increase its annual refugee intake to 110’000 and Canada has pledged to take in 45’000 additional Syrian refugees over coming year.
The Government’s Deception
Instead of making substantive contributions to addressing this global problem, the government has repeatedly made excuses, misrepresented figures and cynically exploited the ambivalence of an already struggling New Zealand public towards welcoming more refugees. Without actually naming us, the UN summit High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein used his opening address at the leaders summit to note that this type of deceptive behaviour is unacceptable. Could it be that John Key and his government are exactly the deceivers UN was referring to?
“The bigots and deceivers, in opposing greater responsibility-sharing, promote rupture. Some of them may well be in this hall this morning. If you are here, we say to you: We will continue to name you publicly. You may soon walk away from this hall. But not from the broader judgement of "we the people", all the world's people – not from us.”
Despite such Powerful language Mr Key continued the deceptive approach his government has maintained over the past year, denying there was pressure on NZ internationally to do more. Key’s comments last week when pushed by Corin Dann after the UN summit were characteristically evasive as he made the same old misrepresentations and excuses saying we could maybe take more refugees - potentially over time - once we ‘gear up’ – but not now. Murdoch Stevens sets some of these latest deceptions straight in this article.
Key’s excuse for not doing more now to contribute was effectively ‘we are so small – what will a few hundred more refugee places matter against the scale of the current crisis?’ This disrespectful rhetoric ignores the fact that every human life is sacred – he may as well have referred to them as skittles. If NZ can save even a few hundred people from a life of homelessness or worse, that will have huge impacts for each of those people and their families which is no small matter.
Key also attempted to deflect the issue of the refugee problem entirely by saying that we really need to do is to end the war in Syria – a noble ambition indeed, especially since like other Western imperialistic resource extraction wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Syrian conflict has no foreseeable end in sight. Furthermore, Key has done nothing to use his temporary position as UN Security Council Chair to substantively bring the end of this war any closer to reality but as Gordon Campbell points out he has simply repeated a tired White House party line.
Underselling our Capacity to assist
A significant and calculated media manipulation and messaging campaign by the government has exploited and contributed to anti migrant sentiment and isolationist attitudes in Aotearoa. Comments made by the government through the media over the past year have systematically connected the costs of refugee support to scarce social resources and threats of further austerity domestically. It is hardly surprising, given how many Kiwis are already struggling to survive economically that the majority are highly susceptible to such veiled threats. As a result the government’s opinion polls obviously still show popular support for their uncaring and pragmatic approach to refugees.
New Zealand does have the capacity both financially and logistically to do far more than we are currently doing to help refugees. We have doubled our real GDP over the past three decades, yet we've decreased the number of refugees we accept in real terms. We can apparently afford to spend $2billion on the military and other neoliberal influenced projects such as asset sales that have cost the national economy. We can hardly plead poverty - it simply comes down to a matter of priorities. The government’s message of austerity and scarcity when it comes to refugees is pretty ironic given how time much they spend these days denying that New Zealand has a housing or employment crisis.
Integration problems no excuse
The most distasteful justification used by the government has been to focus on the poor integration outcomes of Refugees as a reason for inaction on refugee assistance. Minister Woodhouse and Mr Key have repeatedly claimed that New Zealand has a problem of poor Refugee integration with many refugees remaining dependent and unemployed after being here for long periods. However, this justification appears again to be based on anecdote and spin as the UNHCR High Commissioner praised New Zealand’s resettlement system as recently as 2012. Information from INZ released to Radio New Zealand under the Official Information Act showed that we currently have extra capacity at the Mangere Refugee Centre for 300 further refugees per year bringing the total to 1300.
Also in 2012 the government announced a grand new ‘Refugee Resettlement Strategy’ with an extensive Public Relations push claiming it to represent a "whole-of-government approach" aimed to get refugees "participating fully and integrated socially and economically as soon as possible" and would ‘fast-track refugee integration’. If as the government claims, New Zealand’s refugee integration outcomes are not improving then I would ask where the money invested in developing and implementing this strategy over last four years has gone and why it has not achieved this goal?
If there are still problems with Resettlement outcomes, this is in part the direct result of the government’s lack of investment in areas that could have real impacts for refugees. In 2012 for example, the government cut a very effective policy that previously offered valuable financial assistance to refugee background residents seeking to study in NZ. This policy had greatly benefited many refugees by allowing them to study, but its removal means that even with student loans and allowances many refugees can no longer afford to do so.
A more cooperative approach rejected
The abovementioned INZ OIA release also showed that Ministers rejected a plan to let individuals and groups sponsor up to 200 refugees a year based on the successful Canadian programme. Instead, the government announced a weak two-year long community resettlement ‘pilot programme’ with only 25 participants that will run from around 2017 in collaboration with NGO providers. As Gordon Campbell previously covered, many in the sector have criticised this pilot as a patronising and an unnecessarily slow response to this issue. The Canadian approach on the other hand was rolled out in real time utilising the resources of the entire government, military and civil society and has enabled them to significantly increase refugee assistance in a very short timeframe.
The Canadian programme includes a cross sector approach of collaboration between NGOs, community groups and Private Citizens and has been by all accounts extremely successful without the need for a lengthy and expensive pilot programme. A key feature is that established community groups or groups of 5 individuals can sponsor a refugee by committing to assist the refugee during the resettlement process. Sponsors are expected to provide financial support as well as other support such as helping the new arrivals to find work, find a doctor, get set up in school and learn about the banking system.
At last month’s summit a new joint initiative to scale the Canadian programme internationally was announced. The programme between the UNHCR, Canada and the Open Society Foundation of Billionaire investor George Soros will provide funding, training and logistical support to develop national programmes for private sponsorship of refugees. This initiative presents an opportunity for New Zealand to revisit the idea of a more cooperative approach and means that the government cannot continue to hide behind weak promises of a pilot programme.
Ignoring benefits of refugees
The government’s rhetoric around this issue has focused a lot on the perceived costs of assisting Refugees is deceptive and clearly aimed at maintaining public sympathy towards their continued inaction. However as Economist Shamubeel Eaqub has pointed out, refugees will have a net positive impact on the New Zealand economy provided adequate resettlement processes are in place. He states that ignoring the benefits side of the equation is inconsistent with the approach taken to events such as the Rugby World Cup. Evidence from OECD countries demonstrates that immigrant households contribute more to the economy in taxes alone than they receive in public provision and are also less likely to receive state benefits, more likely to start businesses, and less likely to commit serious crimes than the rest of the population.
We have an aging population a low population density and numerous skills shortages. Adding significant numbers of refugees (the majority of whom are youths) could potentially address many economic and social problems in New Zealand, especially in rural areas. The real question is whether the government are willing to commit resources in the short-term to resettlement and integration of refugees in order to reap these long-term benefits. This is unfortunately not an attractive policy for our current neoliberal government which tends to focus more on short-term pragmatism and poll ratings than a long-term programme of change.
What can we do?
If we do not do more in the coming years to solve this refugee crisis, New Zealand will be on the wrong side of history. In order to ensure we play our part in addressing this crisis we need to push for policies and interventions both at home and abroad that address root issues of further migration such as wars, climate change and austerity. We need to ensure that both our local and global economy benefits the many rather than the few as experience shows that people will not welcome refugees until their own basic needs are met. Our government must also however be more responsible by educating Kiwis about the many benefits of refugees and diversity rather than cynically playing on xenophobia and fears of scarcity. We also need to invest adequately in integration and resettlement support services and support innovative solutions such as private sponsorship or resettling migrants in rural communities. However, none of these changes will happen unless the public clearly indicates with a united voice that they demand action from our opinion poll obsessed government. It is up to us to ensure pressure on the government continues so that they are forced to step up and act to contribute to this crisis as a responsible member of the global community.