We’ll take 150, and call it our good turn to you.

This was the salient outcome of the yearly meeting between the premiers of New Zealand and Australia held in Queenstown earlier this month: a commitment on the part of the hosts to take a small number of refugees detained and processed at the camps in Nauru, Manus Island and Yongah Hill. In order to accommodate them, New Zealand has no plan to increase its yearly quota of 750 (which it has lately failed to fill), but intends rather to lower its intake from the UNHCR facilities in Africa and Asia to 600. By comparison, Australia – whose population is five times that of New Zealand – takes over 25 times as many refugees.

This arithmetic of course doesn’t begin to tell the whole story concerning the country’s respective records in this area, but the absolute number is striking nonetheless: a mere 150 people, a number so small as to have prompted several journalists who covered the summit to use the infelicitous metaphor ‘a drop in the ocean’, yet big enough to demand that the balance be deducted from another column of the ledger: for to do otherwise might be perceived as a show of generosity not towards Australia, but towards asylum seekers, and this would be politically unacceptable.

As for the official rationale, according to Prime Minister John Key it is two-fold: on the one hand, the policy is a way of thanking Australia for sharing its intelligence on the activity of people smugglers in the region; on the other, it is aimed at discouraging asylum seekers from bypassing Australia and reaching New Zealand directly. Neither proposition makes much sense unless you are willing to entertain the possibility that somebody would in fact attempt to make such a voyage, which at over 4,000 miles is equivalent to crossing the Atlantic twice. (Comedically, Mr Key has suggested that this is not fanciful given how it is possible to sail around the world in very small yachts. We’ve all since been living in fear of being invaded by thousands of persecuted champion yachtspersons.) What is less clear however is how exactly a policy of increasing the intake of refugees from a certain group is supposed to deter other prospective refugees from the same group from coming here. Unless the policy is in fact aimed at influencing somebody else’s behaviour entirely.

In the aftermath of the announcement, John Key has made vague allusions to an incident that is supposed to have occurred some time before Christmas, when the Australian authorities could have shepherded a boat across the Tasman but chose not to. Attempts by various parties to gain more information on this mysterious event have thus far been fruitless.  Hard as it is to credit, the episode is now part of the official record and shines a sinister light on the policy and on trans-Tasman relations more broadly, since its strong implication is that New Zealand would be taking some refugees in exchange for Australia not letting through the boats heading our way. As to why these arrivals – which, historically, have been as many as zero – would pose such a catastrophic threat, thinking of asylum seekers as some sort of nuclear or industrial waste will help the overly sentimental achieve the necessary perspective.

We are firmly in the territory that Jeff Sparrow described so well on these pages last year, in which the victims are demonised and – by a true miracle of collective will and political rhetoric – turned into oppressors. Yet to a very significant extent this story is in fact not about refugees. Consider again the smallness of that number – 150 – and how it comes out of a slightly larger number – 750 – instead of being added to it. So few lives, but also: lives of people we don’t know or care about. We’ll take these ones over here instead of those ones over there. What difference does it make? A minister within John Key’s own coalition, the Christian moderate Peter Dunne, disapprovingly tweeted: ‘We should take the 150 we want, not the 150 Australia will not have’, as if there were some sort of vetting going on; as if we picked refugees the way we pick other immigrants, that is to say in perfect neoliberal fashion, through a carefully weighted points system designed to maximise the country’s gain. But Mr Dunne must know, or at least he should, that non-persons are all interchangeable. This is why they are best represented as a quantity.

150. A number so small that it could only be symbolic. What it means is that there is a country prepared to go along with Australia’s broadly condemned treatment of asylum seekers. To take part in it, even. So the traffic is really in political capital. But what does New Zealand get in return?

The views of this country’s leading commentators have differed on this point. Some maintain that the quid to our quo will be a partial reinstatement of the welfare provisions for New Zealand workers living in Australia, although no such changes were in fact mooted after the summit. What did form part of the announcement was that the two countries would endeavour to find ways to collect each other’s student loan debt, and it seems rather more likely to me – as it does to Audrey Young – that this is in fact the concession that New Zealand was after.

NZ$600 million. There’s another number. That is our price for approving of your refugee policy. And if it isn’t, then it will be another equally absurd trade-off that fails to account in human terms for the welfare and future of 150 people. They are so few, after all.

Giovanni Tiso

Giovanni Tiso is an Italian writer and translator based in Aotearoa/New Zealand and the editor of Overland’s online magazine. He tweets as @gtiso.

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  1. ‘We’ve all since been living in fear of being invaded by thousands of persecuted champion yachtspersons.’
    I shouldn’t laugh since it’s not a funny topic but that’s a great line.

  2. I think Mr Key was clumsily re-hashing an argument made by last year by now-retired conservative commentator and press-secretary to Key’s predecessor Richard Long, who in a truly loathsome column suggested that there have been as many as six attempts to reach New Zealand according to unspecified ‘intelligence reports’, and that a steel-hulled boat has reached Canada, a much longer journey. Therefore

    [i]f New Zealand in effect advertises itself as welcoming they will eventually come, in spite of the dangers of the Tasman Sea.

    Not advertising ourselves as welcoming means either creating our own Australian-style detention camps (as per a piece of legislation currently in our Parliament) or – as we seem to be doing now – outsourcing the whole operation to Australia, since you guys have worked so hard to establish a tough reputation.

    Long further opines that boat people are economic refugees, therefore not ‘real’, deserving refugees (towards whom of course he feels so deeply), and yet that somehow they could demand full welfare protections upon arrival and form an instant league with dole-bludgers. That I guess is the thing with these people: they are so much more powerful than us, so fully ready to become an enemy within.

  3. “as if we picked refugees the way we pick other immigrants, that is to say in perfect neoliberal fashion, through a carefully weighted points system designed to maximise the country’s gain”

    For the sake of correctness, I would like to say that true neoliberal economic theory suggests that the best immigration control is no immigration control – that people should be free to move wherever it makes economic sense for them to go (and that it is good for countries and their development to let them move). That of course has not stopped so-called neoliberal governments to put all sorts of immigration controls when in power….

    1. I’m not terribly well-versed in neoliberal theory, but I imagine that it doesn’t call for the use of death squads either, yet they came in damn handy in the early days as I recall. We should always be mindful of the gap between theory and practice. I’ll also note that by the time New Zealand came on board, it was universally recognised (and praised) as the perfect little neoliberal state, so I’m going to let my original comment stand.

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