A new Australasian wave of terror for refugees?
NZ facing threat of refugee boats: Key
New Zealand is not prepared to extend the number of refugees it accepts and needs to address the increasing risk of refugee boats reaching our shores, says Prime Minister John Key.
Mr Key yesterday said he had discussed with new Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard the possibility of creating a "regional processing centre" in the Pacific region.
East Timor President Jose Ramos-Horta has also been included in the discussions - fuelling expectations the centre would be in his country.
Speaking in South Korea yesterday, Mr Key said New Zealand's interest in the proposal was partly due to the prospect of boatloads of asylum seekers arriving in New Zealand.
With only a week or so in power it is interesting to see how quickly Key is cutting to the geopolitical chase with Gillard, this time proposing regional processing centres for Australasia. Key's future imaginings of "I see boat people" are a very real concern, but the proposed alliance with Australia marks an abrupt change in policy from the Clark era. Australia is not exactly a great bastion for human rights - the way they sent the military in to deal with the Aborigines just a few years ago is a great example, or Labour's plans for more desert prisons following overcrowding in their Christmas Island facilities.
The politics of scarcity in an increasingly globalized world are problematic, but inevitably for first world nations tend to result in an attempt to sweep people under the carpet in the most terrifying ways. We should be incredibly wary of any proposed alliance with Australia, a country that has a record of keeping people and children in desert prisons. These people are refugees not criminals, and the impact of these detentions on people's mental wellbeing is horrific. Take the example of the Iranians who, without hope in 2004 at their detention in a desert prison, went on a hunger strike sewing their lips together to refuse food. Or the examples of children bashing their heads continuously against walls, suffering post-traumatic stress disorder from their imprisonment. In many ways, the current refugee processing centres in New Zealand are traumatic for refugees, who languish without certainty over their future having fled terrible situations in their home nations, but nothing compared to the 'out of sight, out of mind' policies of Australia.
When Key says these centres are unlikely to be in New Zealand, we should be worried. There are debates in Australia at the moment over whether these detention centres should be on domestic territory, which leads me to think that the proposed Australasian centre would be outsourced to a poor nation state, as happened with the boat people from the ship that Australia just allowed to sink off its shores in 2002. Rescued by the Norwegian freighter the TAMPA, this incident sparked international controversy over Australia's refusal to take refugees, and the implementation of a 'Pacific Solution' that saw Nauru and Papua New Guinea being paid off to take these people in detention centres in an exchange of aid for refugees. While under the Clark government New Zealand took many of these refugees, saving them from the distress of being trapped in between borders, many who were stuck developed severe post-traumatic stress disorder, in an event that was widely criticized by human rights proponents and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.
While the influx of refugees across borders is a problem that many nations are struggling with - take Obama's calls for vigilance over the 11 million illegal immigrants in the US over the last week - I want to highlight the following caveats in dealing with this issue in such an inhumane manner:
1. As security reports for Australia and the US highlight in looking at the impact of climate change on the geopolitical enforcement of borders, we are part of the problem in generating a mass of refugees. We do consume more than these nations and in some cases have been linked to nations that have had a role in destabilizing the states these people come from.
2. People come to countries like Australia and New Zealand as they believe in our records for democracy and human rights. That we would even consider participating with Australia in a system that treats people in this manner raises serious questions about what we stand for as a nation, and also could potentially contribute to further security threats in the future as word of our treatment is circulated around other nations and we become increasingly aligned with Australia and the US in the global imaginary. (For all of Clark's faults, you would have to agree that she was someone acutely aware of this paradigm, which can be seen in the way she distanced New Zealand from Australia in this discourse). If, as some commentators are saying, this detention centre is likely in East Timor, then I would like to draw your attention to the fact that there is something very ethically wrong with placing a detention centre in a country where we have ignored the Indonesian genocide of East Timorese people and given its political record, can hardly be called a bastion of human rights.
3. Treating refugees in this manner might be a political drawcard for nationalism, but it hides the very real costs that are created through this maltreatment. Basically, people are much easier to integrate into society if they are kept happy, and traumatizing them creates a much larger burden on the society where they end up. The costs of keeping people under the Pacific Solution was estimated by the Democrats at more than a billion from 2001 to 2006, so exporting them to poor nation states can hardly be called a viable solution.
This is an area of immigration we need to keep an eye on; regardless of your perspective it creates ramifications that affect us all. If we are to go with Australia, which I really think we should not, it is our responsibility as citizens to ensure we do not participate in the kind of policy that criminalizes and destroys some of the world's most vulnerable people.