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NZ and the current refugee crisis

The limits of morality: New Zealand and the current refugee crisis

by Branko Marcetic

Much has already been said about the moral sterility of the government regarding the current refugee crisis that doesn’t need to be repeated. Suffice to say, even after ‘softening’ his stance on not lifting the refugee quota, the Prime Minister’s support for doing so can most charitably be described as tepid. But as news and images filter in of dead toddlers washing up on beaches, suffocated corpses tumbling from trucks and families crammed into trains going nowhere, it’s worth remembering that the government did show some moral leadership on one issue some months back..

Not long ago, we were told our moral imperative was to entangle ourselves in the US ‘War on Terror’ and send New Zealanders to support the latest American adventure in our Iraq to fight ISIL. Excepting his later candid admission that doing so was “the price of the club” of the Five Eyes alliance, the issue was presented by the Prime Minister in stark ethical terms. Referring to reports of mass rapes and the grisly beheading videos being circulated by the terror group at the time, Key said back in September that ISIL’s “acts of brutality are grotesque and most New Zealanders would be offended by what they see.” A month later, he intoned that “the actions that these people are undertaking” were “morally reprehensible.”

The Prime Minister repeated this sentiment earlier this year as the drumbeat of war accelerated, stating that the Islamic State’s brutality meant “we really, I don’t think, have a realistic option of saying [and] doing nothing.” When the government at last sent 143 New Zealand Defence Force personnel, Key told Parliament in an accompanying ministerial statement that New Zealand “stands up for its values,” and that “[w]e stand up for what’s right.”

However, the Prime Minister’s greatest moment of moral grandstanding undoubtedly came in February this year, when he admonished the Opposition for their reluctance to support the deployment, and urged them to “get some guts and join the right side,” evidently confusing the act of sending men and women to die from an office chair with the actual courage shown by those same men and women in putting their lives in jeopardy on a battlefield. “We have an obligation to support stability and the rule of law internationally,” he explained. “We do not shy away from taking our share of the burden when the international rules-based system is threatened.”

Needless to say, the Prime Minister’s moral certainty regarding this issue, bordering on self-satisfaction, is a far cry from the indecisiveness he’s shown on the matter of assisting refugees from the same region he once believed New Zealand couldn’t help but become militarily involved in. This despite the fact that, were the Key government truly interested in alleviating human misery and instability in the Middle East, playing a role in mitigating the refugee crisis – either by providing humanitarian aid or by accepting an emergency quota of refugees – was and remains one real, concrete and demonstrably effective way to do so.

Providing both moral and physical support to the US’ haphazard involvement in the region, on the other hand, certainly wasn’t. It’s not clear what, if anything, New Zealand and other nations’ engagement has done to improve the lives of Iraqis. Iraq continues to cede territory to ISIL, which has taken several key cities since our own Defence Force Personnel were deployed, and as recently as August 13, breached the walls of Baghdad and killed at least 80 people in the city’s deadliest attack this year. At the same time, the group’s membership has surged upward.

US-led airstrikes have succeeded in one thing, however: killing hundreds of civilians in Iraq alone, such as one instance where five family members (including a pregnant woman and an eight-year old girl) were killed in their home. You would think the Prime Minister, so concerned as he was about the horrors committed by ISIL, would be outraged by what little progress has been made in stopping them, let alone the actions of his own allies.

Meanwhile, compare the government’s full-throated support of war to the token gesture it has offered refugees from the region. The Prime Minister liked to point out to naysayers that we had given a measly $14.5 million (now $15.5 million according to Amnesty International) in humanitarian aid for refugees from the region. That’s less than a quarter of what we’ve paid to remain “part of the club” by deploying troops in Iraq ($65 million) and as numerous others have pointed out, it’s substantially less than we’ve paid to satisfy the Prime Minster’s sudden whim in unnecessarily choosing between four new universally reviled flag designs.

It’s especially urgent because, as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has pointed out, the crisis now unfolding is the worst since World War II. And it is Syria, which has been emptied of more than half of its population in four years, which is the major driver. Around 70 years ago, the same excuses used now to deny asylum to Middle Eastern refugees (“They must wait their turn”, “We can’t handle more immigrants”, “Think of the economy”) were cited by some Western governments to turn away Jewish refugees from Nazi-occupied territories.

Nowadays, when we hear stories of the British government placing Jewish refugees in internment camps, or of the American and Canadian governments turning away boats of Jewish refugees – some of whom subsequently ended up in concentration camps – we rightly feel shame and anger. The members of the Key government probably assume they would never have made such ghastly errors of judgement had they been alive at the time. Yet there is little difference between what was happing then and what is happening now. The fact that one group was being specifically targeted for extermination while the other is trapped in an anarchic and hellish limbo doesn’t matter; they both are human and each suffers. What makes the current situation particularly callous is that the Prime Minister’s own mother was one of the lucky ones who escaped Nazi-occupied Austria.

Unlike the ambiguity and uncertainty of waging war against ISIL, revising our refugee quota, accepting emergency refugees and stepping up humanitarian aid would tangibly ease the extreme human suffering being experienced in the Middle East. If our Prime Minister found ISIL’s beheading videos “grotesque” and offensive, then how can he stand to see and hear about the torment displaced people from the region are now experiencing? New Zealand currently has an opportunity to “stand up for its values” and “stand up for what’s right”, which the government should seize; unless, of course, its decision to join the Iraq fight was really just clinical political calculus designed to play to its base and placate big brother in North America. Unfortunately, there is no “club” for the countries who show compassion.


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