By Tracey Barnett
Physically healthy children lay limp, catatonic, eyes closed, unresponsive, their bodies floppy when moved. It’s called Traumatic Withdrawal Syndrome, a name that doesn’t begin to capture how disturbing the visual reality looks. At least 30 refugee children on the tiny Pacific republic of Nauru are suffering from a form of this so-called ‘resignation syndrome’.
For those now growing up interned on Nauru, seeing adults attempt suicide, experiencing endemic self-harm and rampant physical and sexual abuse, there is no end in sight. These families’ hopelessness is a catalogue of trauma at crisis levels: adults sewing their lips together, drinking detergent, hanging themselves or eating glass. One man set himself on fire with petrol in front of visiting officials. The current mental state of those imprisoned in Australia’s offshore refugee ‘camps’ has shocked even UNHCR workers.
So it seems straightforward: Why hasn’t New Zealand’s offer to take 150 of those refugees been taken up? Isn’t this a clear-cut case of helping out a neighbour? Surely this would be a simple humanitarian win-win for everyone involved?
The problem lies in the tricky word ‘humanitarian’. Australian politicians have consistently found a way to subvert it. No less than four Australian prime ministers have held their foot firmly against New Zealand’s open door. Each successive administration has amped up both rhetoric and punishment of arriving asylum seekers. They have learned a political reality that plays well at home. The tougher they look to domestic voters about ‘Stopping the Boats’, the higher their poll numbers go. The human cost to those still cruelly entrapped by their policies doesn’t pay political dividends.
If you want to understand why this deal is still stymied today, look backward first.
Go back to a conference in Queenstown, February of 2013. Then-Prime Ministers John Key and Julia Gillard make an announcement. New Zealand would take 150 of Australia’s refugees. Few noticed that this was not just a one-off. New Zealand was signing up to take 150 Australian refugees every single year for the foreseeable future. This was new. Historically, New Zealand accepts its quota refugees through the UNHCR system. The government was now agreeing to take 150 refugees from its bigger neighbour instead.
This wasn’t a particularly generous expansion of the usual in-take either. Indeed, these 150 were not to be in addition to the tiny quota of 750 per annum. (New Zealand’s refugee quota remained at 750 for almost 30 years until last year. Today it is 1000. It is due to be raised to 1500 by 2020). Key’s government was offering to actually decrease our UNHCR in-take to just 600 refugees to make room for Australia’s 150 refugees.
What was gained in the exchange? That was never publicly spelled out. It was vaguely explained as ‘intelligence sharing’. No one said it out loud, but in all likelihood ‘intelligence sharing’ was a euphemism acknowledging that Australia’s programme to ‘Stop the Boats’ was indirectly benefitting New Zealand too. How much Australia may be doing with New Zealand’s quiet permission has never been made public. Prime Minister John Key said at the time,
“From New Zealand’s point of view we rely very heavily on the work Australia does on the ground and the places these boats are coming from. So yup – we can try and freeload on that process if we like, but I think as a regional partner it makes sense for us to not duplicate those resources… but in the end take some people through their system.”
Then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard went further. She invited New Zealand to send any future boat arrivals to Australia’s inhumane offshore prisons too. It’s worth noting that New Zealand has never received a boatload of asylum seekers in modern history — and still hasn’t today. John Key referred to this as a ‘good deal’ for New Zealand.
Some months later, when Tony Abbott came to power, he immediately put the Queenstown deal on hold. New Zealand should not become a ‘consolation prize’, Abbott said.
Ever since then, this deal has remained ‘on the table’ — but in continual limbo.
So, what is really stopping the offer from going through now? Tumultuous Australia politics, still. For a mainstream Australian politician to embrace refugees is to embrace political trouble. Fear-mongering has been an effective vote-winner, even if it carries shades of racist dog-whistling.
Each sitting Australian Prime Minister makes the same argument. If they allow New Zealand to take these 150 refugees, this will be a ‘pull factor’ for more to follow via their shores. They cite that once a refugee becomes a New Zealander, they would have the right to enter Australia again, their New Zealand residency providing a ‘back door’ into their country.
Interestingly, each Australian Prime Minister also ignores the reality of modern data-driven border information systems. Australia has always had the power to stop and turn around any new Kiwi refugee who comes to Australia before they ever leave the airport. All they would need to do is flag their passport number at a customs computer to interdict entry.
Modern Australian history teaches a cruel lesson: when it comes to refugee policy, maintaining political power quashes humanitarian imperative. Looking back, one of the first political beneficiaries of slamming the door on boat arriving refugees was John Howard during The Tampa crisis in 2001. Though he was losing in the polls, when he ordered The Tampa to turn around and famously decreed “We will decide who comes into this country,” his political fortunes turned around too.
Australia’s revolving door of recent Prime Ministers in shaky political straits has translated into history repeating itself. Each candidate has been willing to pull every political weapon necessary to keep power, down to using refugees as human pawns.
Is there hope on the horizon for these desperate men, women and children, some having endured extensive human rights abuses for five years now?
Both Nauru and Papua New Guinea are financially dependent on both Australia’s funds and goodwill. They won’t bite the hand that feeds them by going around Australia’s wishes and authorising the New Zealand deal.
Prime Minister Ardern can only repeat our offer so many times without alienating our bigger neighbours across the Tasman that needs to give these smaller players permission.
Meanwhile, slowly, the Trump administration is reluctantly making good on Obama’s promise to take 1250 refugees off Manus Island. Australia says it will not consider New Zealand’s offer until the US intake has been met.
Perhaps predictably, the best hope lies in another change of Australia’s government. As offshore detention costs spiral to over $1 billion for just 1,140 offshore detainees last year, Australians taxpayers have to foot the price tag. Sensing a growing point of difference, Australian Labor Party leader Bill Shorten has reversed his party’s stance and is now supporting taking up New Zealand’s offer—that is, if he ever makes it to the top chair.
Meanwhile, the stories of refugee abuse, suicide and utter hopelessness fall deaf on new Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s ears. On his desk sits a trophy of a sleek, polished, silver boat. Inscribed proudly across the side are the coda of his political generation engraved in black: “I Stopped These.”
Tracey Barnett is a columnist, commentator and author of The Quiet War on Asylum, published by Bridget Williams Books, https://www.bwb.co.nz/books/the-quiet-war-on-asylum. She is also the creator of WagePeaceNZ, an awareness and advocacy initiative to help Kiwis keep up on refugee issues in New Zealand. Find it on Facebook here https://www.facebook.com/wagepeacenz/.