NZ refugee settlement a positive step, but not nearly enough

March 30, 2022
Sydney refugee rally on March 20. Photo: Zebedee Parkes

The federal government’s cruelty towards refugees should be a critical issue in the federal election. Green Left’s Chloe de Silva asked long-term refugee rights campaigner and Moreland councillor Sue Bolton about the recent deal with New Zealand (NZ) and the differences, if any, between the major parties on refugee policies.

What is the refugee deal between Australia and New Zealand?

It involves 150 refugees from Australia going to NZ each year.

It could have been accepted nine years ago and if it had been, 1330 refugees would have already been resettled there. It’s going to take several years for all the Medevac refugees to be resettled in NZ.

These refugees could also have been resettled in Australia. They came from the region by boat and according to the United Nations refugee convention, refugees must not be discriminated against on the basis of their means of arrival.

The deal, however, is a victory for refugees and the movement supporting them because it only came about after sustained public pressure, including when [Serbian tennis player] Novak Djokovic was put into the Park Hotel with some of the detained refugees.

The deal excludes many refugees, including those stranded in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea (PNG).

Hundreds of refugees, including those in PNG as a result of Australia shipping them to Manus Island, will not be eligible to be resettled in NZ. They have been left in limbo.

The government has not had a change of heart: it is doing the bare minimum to assuage public anger about their cruel treatment.

You can say the Australian government is guilty of human trafficking — not necessarily for money — but it is breaking international conventions.

Many refugees in PNG have very few rights. Being gay is illegal and some are being persecuted. PNG has anti-abortion laws and it does not have medical facilities for treating those, such as Tamils who fled the civil war, with trauma and war injuries.

Some of those released are happy to be going to NZ, but some have developed ties to people here. They will be shifted away from their social support.

The federal government has also said refugees who arrive by boat in the future will not be resettled here or be eligible to be resettled in NZ.

Basically, that rips up the UN refugee convention.

What’s the difference between a refugee arriving by boat, plane or some other means?

Afghan refugees who managed to flee to Iran or Pakistan or north to Uzbekistan after the Taliban took power are not eligible to claim asylum here.

In fact, Australia is taking very few Afghan refugees; some refugees are not eligible because they are in a third country. According to the Scott Morrison government they are meant to seek refugee status in that country.

New Zealand allows up to 300 places, including spouses and dependent children.

Australia changed the laws in draconian ways to try and stop refugees coming. New Zealand has not had a whole raft of anti-refugee policies. But NZ is not being altruistic either.

The 150 refugees a year it is taking from Australia will be deducted from its UN refugee quota. Some countries have committed to quotas of refugees from camps in Africa and other countries with UN-supervised camps.

It is similar to what the Coalition government under John Howard did. Then, for every refugee who arrived here by boat, Australia reduced the number of refugees it took from refugee camps in Africa. That policy was designed to create divisions between communities.

Is there much of a policy difference between the major parties?

Both the Coalition and Labor oppose resettling refugees who have come here by boat. That’s why Labor will talk a lot about the Biloela family, but not about the Medevac refugees who were in offshore detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island before coming to Australia.

Labor also says refugees should be processed offshore. But people who have been assessed as refugees in Indonesia have been waiting 10 or more years for resettlement.

A tangible difference between the major parties was brought to my attention by Iranian refugees at a protest outside the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation detention centre.

Labor’s policy is to abandon temporary protection visas. That would allow family reunions — a positive change for thousands of refugees.

But both refuse to resettle any refugee who has arrived by boat since 2013.

Are refugees still trying to reach Australia?

The government claims it has stopped the boats, but they are still coming. We don’t know how many the authorities are intercepting and turning back, including boats without enough fuel to return to land.

A June–July report to the UN Human Rights Council said Australia had pushed back an estimated 800 people on 38 vessels since 2013, but that there were few other details on Australia’s actions at sea. It said “militant secrecy” over “on-water matters” made any oversight difficult.

Both parties have turned a blind eye to those refugees who were heading to Australia but are now stuck in Indonesia.

The Coalition tries to create the impression that everyone — from Afghanistan, Iran or anyone from the Global South — wants to come to Australia.

In fact, not many want to come here. Most seek refuge in other parts of their own countries first and, when they cannot do that, they try and go to neighbouring countries. Most people who seek refuge intend to go back to their homes, as is being made clear from the millions of Ukrainians fleeing the war there.

This is why Pakistan and Iran support millions of refugees, compared to the tiny number Australia has agreed to.

Those most desperate seek refuge somewhere else. It’s more than likely to be accidental if they end up here; it might be where people smugglers take them.

Family reunion is virtually impossible for refugees. Can you explain?

Thousands of refugees are being denied family reunion including all those on temporary protection visas, such as Safe Haven Enterprise Visa visas and bridging visas, including the Medevac refugees who have been released from detention and who are on bridging visas awaiting deportation.

They are all being denied the right to reunite with their families. That is a condition of the temporary protection visas; people have to prove every three or five years that they still deserve protection from being deported back to the place they fled.

Being separated from family is the cause of huge heartache for refugees. Some have had family members die; some have had their families harassed by the military. From a detention centre in Australia, or offshore, or even living out in the community, they cannot help. This is another form of torture.

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