As the tragic news broke this week that up to 900 possible refugees may have drowned at sea trying to get to Italy, the call went out like bad satire, “Stop the boats! Punish the traffickers!”
What a sad folly. No one, including New Zealand, was willing to look in the mirror. Maybe that’s because the truth is, our own reflection isn’t terribly pretty. As families risk their lives at sea rather than die in the war that has engulfed them, New Zealand has quietly just shrugged. It’s not our crisis. It’s so far away.
We’re missing the boat entirely. We are every bit a part of the problem. New Zealand has very quietly closed the door to refugees from long-term neglect.
Our miniscule UNHCR refugee quota has been stalled for an incredible 28 years now. Even though we’ve grown in population over those three decades by almost 40 percent, our per capita commitment to refugees has shrunk into microscopic size. Indeed, the only time our annual quota changed was to drop by 50 places in 1997.
We like to believe our own clichés; we’re decent world citizens who punch above our weight. But that’s not what the numbers say. New Zealand ranks 87th in the world in the total refugees and asylum seekers we host, 113th if you assess it by our GDP per capita. For our relative wealth, we have nothing to be proud of. Even Australia, no friend to boat arrivals, voluntarily welcomes over three times more UNHCR refugees per capita than we do.
That doesn’t tell the whole story either. What’s worse, have a gander at what has happened to our spontaneous asylum seeker arrivals. Their numbers have withered by an astounding -75 percent since 9-11.
Because of our geography, asylum seekers arrive to New Zealand by air. But today, potential refugees who seek their perfectly legal right to ask for asylum are being stopped from ever getting on a plane.
The ‘war on terror’ has a lot to answer for. In the past, the very few asylum seekers who attempted to make it all the way to a cousin in New Zealand, today are swept away from their last lifeline by the magic of big data sharing. Western countries now quietly lock out potential asylum seekers through sophisticated computer interdiction systems. That means someone with a Syrian passport, for example, may never be allowed to board a flight to Auckland. They may be shut out from ever receiving a visa.
It makes sense then, why desperate people are so willing to risk putting their families onto rickety boats. If you have to chose between almost certain death at home, or even the possibility of safety at the end of a dangerous voyage, you will choose life every time.
This decade’s flourishing boat trafficking has been given an unintended, deadly boost. New Zealand, like its Five Eyes brethren, makes damned sure folks can’t even begin the air journey to ask for help in the first place.
What does that look like in reality? Our tiny asylum acceptance numbers used to be roughly 500 annually in the handful of years before 9-11. When the new millennium clicked over, backlog arrivals climbed as high as roughly 1500. But post 9-11, everything changed. The western world didn’t care if innocent civilians running from war and persecution were caught up in their frenzied anti-terrorist web. US-led computer interdiction kicked in with force. New Zealand was only too happy to be a good team player.
When the twin towers burned, no one knew then that honouring the spirit of international refugee conventions worldwide would go up in smoke too. Today, New Zealand asylum acceptances have dried up to a sad, desperate trickle, just 129 this past year. In real terms, we’re doing less, for far less refugees than we did decades ago.
We are willing to ‘get on the right side’ when it comes to spending 65 million dollars to put Kiwi lives at risk in Iraq. But there is a better answer to a far better question: How can we contribute on the world stage in a saner, more humane, even measurable way? How can we contribute in a manner that unquestionably enriches specific lives, that suits the Kiwi sense and sensibility far more than helping to wage war?
Next year our government will be asked to review our annual refugee quota—yes, yet again. Given all that we haven’t done in 28 years and counting, even if we doubled our paltry in-take, we would only move from 87th in the world to a mere 78th in the number of refugees we host. We are better than that, New Zealand.
Prime Minister, at the very least, double our refugee quota; double our refugee support—because this is the right thing to do. Build the lives that war destroys and wage peace, New Zealand, instead.
Columnist Tracey Barnett is the author of The Quiet War on Asylum and created the refugee initiative #WagePeaceNZ. Supporters of doubling our refugee quota or those who want to stay abreast of refugee issues in New Zealand can ‘like’ #WagePeaceNZ at: https://www.facebook.com/wagepeacenz