I sighed when I read the Sunday Star-Times front page headline: “People-smugglers bid to sail first boat to NZ”. Here we go again, I thought. Another scare story playing to racists and those among us who are prejudiced against asylum seekers.
When I read the article, the evidence presented didn’t match the headline. Apparently an Indonesian-based fraudster called Murtaza Khan was taking money off asylum seekers on a promise to get them to New Zealand, but if they actually got on to a boat it would go towards Australia.
New Zealand’s ambassador to Indonesia, David Taylor, hit the nail on the head saying: “Some [smugglers] say ‘we’ll get you to New Zealand’ not actually intending to get there because they know they can’t, [they’re] hoping to get to a certain point then duck into Australia, so its part of their marketing strategy.”
Boatpeople have enough trouble travelling the 200km from Indonesia to Australia’s Christmas Island. Many have drowned on the way. It is hard to imagine the smugglers sending their cheap, rickety boats (the only ones which are cost effective to use) on a 4000km journey across the Tasman.
Thankfully, the Star-Times also carried a thoughtful piece by Tracey Barnett, author of “The Quiet War on Asylum”, criticising our government for buying in to Australia’s inhuman off-shore detention policy.
Barnett said that John Key had “endorsed the idea of potentially sending any New Zealand boat arrivals to Australia’s Nauru and Manus Island prisons, if ever a boat does arrive one day.”
She proposes that we “reject Australia’s immoral policy of peddling human lives to other countries”, which is contrary to its UN refugee obligations and is also setting a bad precedent internationally.
New Zealand is already under fire for breaching UN refugee and human rights conventions with its 2013 amendment to the Immigration Act enabling the mass detention of asylum seekers who arrive in a group of 30 or more. The latest criticism comes in a review of New Zealand’s human rights standards by the UN Human Rights Council. In reply, our government said the detention policy was simply a “management mechanism” – clearly a lie in that New Zealand is quite able to manage a boatload of asylum seekers fleeing persecution without imprisoning them. As was the case with Australia, the new legislation has a punitive purpose, to discourage asylum seekers from coming here.
We’ve got to rid ourselves of any idea that asylum seekers are somehow a threat and have to be treated harshly. In fact, they have the most troubled and difficult lives of any people on earth, and deserve our compassion.
To its credit, the Star-Times does carry a story about the hardship of three Pakistani shi’a asylum seekers who are stuck in limbo in Indonesia.
So far our compassion towards refugees doesn’t stretch very far. Each year, New Zealand accepts 750 refugees through a quota system, and in addition grants refugee status to around 100 asylum seekers who arrive in the country independently. In all, not a large number when you consider that Lebanon, with a similar population to New Zealand, currently hosts one million refugees. We could easily take more.