|Girls playing football at the Azraq refugee camp, Jordan.|
Photo by Simon Day from his report from the camp for The Spinoff.
The government has finally reviewed our refugee quota, underwhelming us all by making permanent – as of 2018 – the modest increase of 250 people a year currently taken up by the emergency intake of Syrian nationals. This is well short of the doubling of the quota demanded by campaigners and recently agreed upon by the Greens and Labour, but as always you can see the calculation made by National. Not increasing the quota would have been scarcely thinkable. A modest increase plays both to the prevailing, soft anti-immigration rhetoric – which the opposition in other areas cheerfully goes along with – and to the government’s attempts to portray itself above all as pragmatic. We cannot afford to be too compassionate. We must ensure that we can relocate refugees and supported them adequately.
This reasonable accommodation conceals the fact that we could in fact choose to make much greater efforts. Taking 250 refugees a year costs $25 million, neatly equal to the small unit of public expenditure known as 1 flagreferendum, or to one 800th of the money we just committed to modernising our Defence Force. Campaigners for doubling the quota have voiced their disappointment, while Amnesty International has correctly called this effort not just paltry, but ‘shameful and inhumane’ in light of the current crisis. This is the same crisis that made John Key bark in the House last year that the opposition needs to ‘get some guts’ and ‘join the right side’. For the purposes of the debate, it seems, ‘guts’ is defined as sending few members of the armed forces to Iraq in non-combat roles, which was borne out of another pragmatic calculation. Political reporter Claire Trevett called it ‘the least… the allies will let us get away with’, and Key all but admitted as much. However, there is no ‘right side’ to join when it comes to increasing our refugee quota to a level remotely commensurate to the gravity of the situation. There are no guts involved in committing to spend what is necessary to give people displaced by war a safe harbour.
Key calls it an ‘appropriate response’, and what has his entire time in government been if not a series of appropriate responses? The least spending cuts he can get away with, the most gradual – if not quite the least punishing – welfare reforms, the slowest bleeding out of health and education, the fewest state houses sold, the fewest motel units bought after we’ve run out of state houses, the smallest contingent of soldiers as far from the front lines as they’re allowed, the smallest number of refugees. A minutely balanced, opinion-polled-within-an-inch-of-its-life permanent exercise that maximises popularity and consensus while rendering government all but invisible. And, as in the case of the housing crisis that nobody is allowed to call a crisis, when the government reduced itself to making a donation to Te Puea Marae to save face, so too in the case of refugees it looks to defer to the initiative of charitable of citizens. This, from the press release ahead of the quota announcement:
The Government has also agreed to pilot a new community sponsorship category in 2017/2018. The details of the pilot are still being worked through and will be announced next year.
“The offers of support from the New Zealand public in the wake of publicity around the significant displacement of people globally is commendable and the Government is keen to explore how that support might be used to the benefit of refugees,” [Minister of Immigration Michael Woodehouse said].Translation: if you like refugees so much, why don’t you pay to bring them over here directly?
The Big Society approach may also be seen as an ‘appropriate response’ to this and other similar public relation problems facing the government. Do you care about the homeless? House them yourselves. Do you care about refugees? We’ll help them come across if you foot the bill. It is quite fitting, too, that political questions be reduced to the short-term horizon of ‘caring’, ensuring they remain urgent only for as long as the public’s attention can be maintained – a feat that requires considerable resources and labour on the part of activists, advocates and journalists.
It is possible that the government is slowly running out of reasonable accommodations and appropriate responses, whose steady accretion may just be beginning to wear down the patience of the electorate. It’s hard to say. Fortunately, National’s very, very junior partner came to the rescue today with a grotesque statement to the effect that we should welcome more refugees so long as they are shown to be ‘tolerant’. This, remember, is the party whose former leader, Richard Prebble, warned against the country taking in too many refugees from ‘desert cultures’, which later elected Don ‘Orewa’ Brash as leader, whose former dead-child-identity-stealing MP David Garrett has since called for the immediate cessation of all Muslim immigration, and whose then largest donor, Louis Crimp, cheerfully declared that ‘we’ (meaning they) ‘all dislike Maori’. This group of tolerance-loving free-market radicals who just so happens to be historically lousy with racists, figures that refugees should have to sign ‘a statement of commitment to New Zealand values’, along the lines of those that Australia and Belgium – according to its press release – require immigrants to abide by.
Never mind that refugees aren’t regular immigrants, and that we’re no more allowed to choose which ones we want than they are to choose where they end up. It is also a myth that we are a tolerant nation, a nation that welcomes diversity, a nation that is secure enough in its value system to know that it can meaningfully welcome and integrate displaced people; as opposed to a country that demands conformity, insecure, stolidly monocultural, obsessed with how it is perceived abroad and prone to fits of apoplectic rage when an intellectual speaking at a writers' festival in another country dares to question the image it projects to the tourist market.
The question of the impact of refugees on hosting nations is often seen in strictly economic terms, which are poorly understood to boot, but I would suggest that a country that demands people sign off on its values has more to gain culturally than economically. It is a country that is crying for people to come over and make the place better.
With thanks to @kumararepublic for help with tracking down the Prebble reference, and to Simon Day for permission to use the image at the top of his post. You really must read his piece.
Let me also call your attention to this PledgeMe page for the Freerange Press book on reimagining the media – on which a lot more in the weeks to come.