Tuesday morning our prime minister decided to tell a group of reporters that a “people smuggling boat” was heading on its way to our shores.
Well, it’s not a “people smuggling boat”.
It is a boat full of asylum seekers searching for protection from breaches of fundamental human rights.
As far as I can tell, this narrative has been completely unchallenged by a compliant media and jumps on an undertone of unhealthy xenophobia evident in the toxic debate in Australia.
The reporting indicates that the boat was intercepted by Australian forces and pushed back to Indonesian waters. There is limited information around the allegedly 65 people on board, but there is reporting that this included a pregnant woman.
Indeed, the information is ridiculously thin. The suggestion by the prime minister that the boat was coming to New Zealand is speculative at best, and manipulative at worst. Regardless, his comments – that we worked through our “processes” – imply that we are complicit in pushing back to Indonesian waters a group of 65 individuals including a pregnant woman and her unborn child where they will be illegal and unable to access any substantive rights.
The release of the information is clearly targeted to justify this government’s overall punitive response to refugees and to create a platform for further negative and discriminatory language in the future. The PM is keen to create a climate of fear around asylum seekers and imply they create a “threat” to New Zealand, absent any real justification for such an inflammatory and entirely disproportionate response to reality.
Let’s take a moment to consider the wording here. It is important not to confuse “smuggling” with “trafficking”. The latter is without consent and involves exploitation. Smuggling, on the other hand, is a consensual process, although it can lead to exploitation. The reality of seeking asylum is that you are forced into the most risky of measures, and these individuals can facilitate that. Indeed, Oskar Schindler was a people smuggler.
The Refugee Convention acknowledges this reality. Article 31 of the Convention states that no one shall be penalised for illegal entry. The drafters of the Convention knew that asylum seekers would be forced to take such drastic measures.
None of this justifies the actions of the smugglers. They are taking advantage of the misery of the asylum seekers. Often, they do so with scant or no regard for their safety. This is only too evident in the Mediterranean.
The reality is that it is the policies of countries like New Zealand and Australia that have created the markets for the people smugglers. With no legal way to come to our “rights regarding” countries through our strict visa regimes and carrier sanctions (fines against airlines for allowing individuals on board who do not meet our immigration criteria), individuals are forced into these other measures.
If New Zealand and Australia were serious about combatting people smuggling, then they would commit to a genuine regional solution. This would involve tangible commitments to accepting more refugees from within the region and working with countries to mitigate the circumstances creating refugees. New Zealand could also assist in other ways through providing training and logistical support – we have excellent people here working on these issues and that knowledge could be shared.
Done right, this would build further bilateral and multilateral partnerships throughout the region. This has to be in our interests.
However, it seems that this government is not interested in all of the aspects of global citizenry. We are happy to talk trade, but not protection or respect for human rights. We are on the Security Council, yet we see no real independent advocacy as promised in the lead up to our election to that body.
At the least, we need our media to challenge the narrative. By adopting the terms used by our prime minister we only play into the choice to criminalize these people fleeing human rights abuse. A more appropriate response would be to question the prime minister on our lack of a commitment to a genuine regional solution. Right now, there is a crisis with the Rohingya, yet our government has been completely silent.