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Gordon Campbell on our response to the Syrian refugee crisis

The full scale of the New Zealand government response to the Syrian refugee crisis – reportedly, the world’s biggest humanitarian challenge since the post-war formation of the UN – has now been revealed.

There is not a lot to be proud of in it. New Zealand will taking in an extra 600 extra refugees per year from Syria over the next three years (and that’s counting the extra 100 Syria refugees already announced in February) and we will also dedicate 150 places to Syrians within this year’s annual UN refugee quota. Some $48.8 million in fresh money will be allocated to this effort, or roughly $16-20 million per annum, all up. To put that in perspective… the government spent $36 million in one fell swoop on the last America’s Cup campaign in San Francisco and it will be spending $24 million on the flag referendum over the next few months. We are also spending $65 million on the current troop deployment in Iraq, to fight the war that is generating these refugees. Oh, and well over a billion dollars was spent on bailing out the investors in Canterbury Finance, none of whom were living in refugee camps at the time.

According to Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse on RNZ this morning, there are capacity constraints – at the Mangere refugee resettlement processing centre, and in translation services – that prevent New Zealand from doing more. Really? Are we seriously trying to argue that in an emergency situation, the processing of refugee arrivals cannot occur anywhere else than at Mangere? Even when, say, the churches and other community organisations are offering their resources? This doesn’t mean that the capacity to house, feed and acclimatise refugee arrivals isn’t a genuine concern - but to cite Mangere and our translation services as the national bottlenecks that preclude a more generous effort looks more like a government casting around for excuses to restrict its response to the bare minimum.

For a country that prides itself on always punching above its weight on the world stage, our effort on the Syrian crisis looks downright puny. We have been consistent under-achievers on this issue. Currently, New Zealand rates at a lowly 90th in the world rankings in terms of refugees per capita and a miserly 116th in the world – and going backwards – when New Zealand’s refugee intake is measured against our relative wealth. As has been widely noted, our UN quota has remained virtually static for the past 30 years, even though our population and economy has grown substantially over that period.

At yesterday’s post Cabinet press conference, Scoop asked whether this new response was proportionate (on a per capita, per GDP basis) to what other developed countries were doing. Alas, Key replied that he didn’t know those figures. Clearly, not all New Zealanders would welcome a more generous response. There is a sizeable constituency in this country who would oppose New Zealand having any refugee intake at all. Some people also misguidedly believe that for every UN quota refugee, a significant multiple - “many times that ” as commentator Matthew Hooton claimed on RNZ yesterday morning - will eventually arrive in this country via family re-unification. That view, Key agreed at the post-Cabinet press conference, is erroneous. He cited recent advice that for the 750 quota refugees, about another 350 – half the quota figure, not many times over and above it – subsequently come in annually on average, under family re-unification. As with migrants from the likes of South Africa, Key added, having your family around you is seen to be a “ natural” and necessary part of a successful resettlement in New Zealand.

Does he feel a personal connection to this issue, given his family history? Key replied: “ I accept that my mother was effectively an Austrian Jewish refugee. And she obviously had the benefit of family re-unification to get herself into the United Kingdom and that completely changed her life. If she hadn’t had that, there is a very strong chance she would have been persecuted and gone to a concentration camp like some of her family members did. But in the end….I take advice on what works [for New Zealand] and what we, as a country can handle.”

There are also regional issues involved. New Zealand likes to portray itself as being part of Asia, and routinely claims that our trade and diplomatic future lies in that region. Yet on the current refugee crisis… does Key expect any blowback from Asia, given that while we are making a special effort about the refugee crisis in Europe, there has been no matching response to the plight of the Rohingya refugees now stranded in Malaysia, or to the Afghan or Sri Lankan refugees also coming through Asia. Won’t Asia be likely to conclude that in times of crisis, our traditional ties to Europe will always be treated by us as being more significant?

“I don’t think so,” Key replied. The crisis in Europe has had global prominence, he pointed out, and New Zealand had not been alone in responding. “If anyone [in Asia] asked, which I don’t they would but if they did, the response I’d give them would be the same one I’ve given you guys: that by maintaining the existing quota and adding people on top of that, we try to balance and reflect that there are a great many people in need. If we’d just included them [the Syrians] as part of our existing quota, then you could make the case that we were being a little unfair about that.” So, there’ll be places within our UN quota for refugees from the camps in Malaysia? “In the 750? Absolutely, yeah.”

And what was his response to the criticism that the $48.8 million spread over two and half years in new money was less than double what we’ll spend in the next few months, on the flag referendum? “Yeah okay,” Key began. “Its $81,000 per person over the next three year period, notwithstanding that there’ll probably be ongoing costs. History tells you that there’ll be ongoing costs with refugee re-settlement. There’s a lifetime cost potentially with some people. But anyway, [there will be] other costs… Annually now we’re spending around about $60 million [on refugees] and now we’ll be spending something on the order of $75 or $80 million. Yep, I accept there’s the view that democracy shouldn’t be honoured when it comes to a constitutional matter like the flag, but I think it would be very arrogant of me as Prime Minister to simply change the flag without reference to people…”

The flag, Scoop replied, had its own arguments. The spending comparison was about the adequacy of the government response to the refugee crisis. Surely, it is a judgement on our response to a major humanitarian crisis that we’re prepared to spend (over the course of several years) less than double what we’re willing and able to spend in a few months, on finding a new flag? “I think cost is one issue, in reality,” Key replied. “Its actually the broader issues of making sure you can actually give people the services and support. You can look at that in a great many things we do. I mean, you could look at any expenditure the government undertakes as part of the $70 odd billion it spends a year, and you’d find a range of people who’d say we spend too much, or too little.”

Maybe. Yet in its generosity to refugees New Zealand is still running well behind Australia, of all countries. For many years, Australia has taken in three to four times the number of refugees – on a per capita basis – than New Zealand has done. Did Key have any idea as to why successive New Zealand governments have been less generous towards refugees than successive Australian ones? “I don’t know,” he replied.

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