Fair Trade Refugees Are A National Shame
By Tracey Barnett ©2013

Burmese Refugee

Isn’t it exciting? Our Prime Minister has now put us in the people buying business. We should be so proud.  Look what we’ve just purchased: 150 hurting men, women and child political pawns—I mean, Australian asylum seekers—whose lives have been traded on the open market. We get ‘Fair Trade People’, instead of coffee.

Just think of the political capital we’ve earned from Australia. We help the Australians erase a little piece of their disastrous policy of disposing refugees to foreign island detention centres like some kind of societal toxic waste– and now we can potentially dump our own boat arrivals there someday. So what if Australian detention camps aren’t exactly pretty; suicide rates 41 times the average, hopeless innocent people held for years, some sewing their lips together and burning their own camps in utter desperation.  Children held in detention.

“These are concentration camps,” says Gary Poole, spokesperson for the Refugee Council of New Zealand, of the newly opened Australian detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island.  “This is the moral equivalent of the lost generation for which future governments will be making apologies. New Zealand shouldn’t be having any part of it. We’re going down this path for no good reason.”

How neighborly, we just won the chance to join Australia in one of the most reviled offshore refugees policies in the western world and what is John Key is telling us this week, “I reckon that’s a pretty good deal.”

Shame is for sissies. These human lives were undoubtedly a killer business deal. We take 150 Australian refugees. Australia gives us more intelligence and—if it is true— Australia promises not to help ferry over their asylum seekers with their navy.

We sure nailed that negotiation. Now if we are good, Australian Navy ships will promise not to shepherd asylum boats all the way across the Tasman. Boats that probably couldn’t have made it on their own anyway, seeing as New Zealand has never received a boat arrival of asylum seekers, ever, in modern history. [Due to our geography and the serious seas that surround us, all asylum seekers arrive to New Zealand by air.  Even then, our arrival numbers are tiny. Only about 125 are allowed to stay a year, according to the UNHCR.]

How good of our neighbors to use such kind naval restraint. It only cost us 150 souls. Blackmail and political neighborliness may never have sounded so beautifully interchangeable in Queenstown last week. Either that, or someone’s peddling a whopper of a fishy tale publically and just hasn’t revealed what was really dealt under the table until after Julia Gillard’s re-election.

Why hang on to an internationally respected Kiwi policy that is held up as a model worldwide in how to treat asylum seekers fairly in the community and—yes, more cheaply—when we have the Australian mass detention model that is anywhere from 69-90 percent more expensive and condemned internationally as inhumane?

What’s more, our Prime Minister has effectively reduced New Zealand’s long-standing international promise to take 750 UN refugees down to 600 now, a miniscule tickle by world standards.

The courageous choice would have been to honor our decade’s long promise of accepting 750 UN refugees, then add the 150 Australian asylum seekers to that number.  But our Prime Minister must have felt that offshore trading in human lives just wasn’t worth spending political capital at home.

We should have guessed something was brewing last year when a confounding bill was introduced to set up our own mass detention camps, perfectly mimicking Australia’s disastrous mistakes, should any boat arrivals actually reach our shore. When the bill didn’t get the votes, Mr. Key may have thought he’d get a better deal with his Australian off-sider instead.

Watch clearly what’s unfolding very quietly now.  Listen for upcoming manufactured fear. We will be deluged with boats! They’re coming! Just like they feared Jewish refugee boats after WWII.  Just like they shouted about Cambodians and Vietnamese after the Viet Nam war. Fear is a powerful divider and an effective political tool. Ask any Australian.

This much should be clear: We are turning tack and running headlong into the political and fiscal quagmire of failed Australian offshore detention that the UN and the world widely condemn.  Look closely at what our Prime Minister has just traded in our name, politicizing human life as a commodity in trade.

John Key is telling us to feel comfortable selling desperate families on to poorer nations.  John Key is telling us asylum seekers are now a political business, not a humanitarian one.  That’s going to take some getting used to from a nation that has been seen as a world role model on how to do refugees issues right.  That is, until now.

This isn’t neighbourliness.  This is how you create national shame, one life at a time.

3 Responses to “Fair Trade Refugees Are a National Shame”

  1. robyn beckingsale says:

    Not sure why your column wasn’t on the front page of SST this week.The decision by John Key to accept Australian asylum seekers is shocking for all the reasons your great article explained.
    I feel ashamed to be associated with the Australian system.
    My engagement with the local Refugee services as a volunteer for the last five years has been a highlight of my life.
    Thank you, that your skill with words helps support their cause.

  2. John Miller says:

    It is a shame you are not published in “The NZ Herald” any more, as we need more quality writing like yours to wake this nation up and unless you are interested you have to search the net to find some common sense like yours.

  3. Lyn Smith says:

    Loved this article.Met you at the Justice and Peace Commission meeting on Saturday 23/08/14. Was moved by what you said and reading the book now.

    Thanks Lyn

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