The battle of the refugee quotas

Defenders of the Australian government’s offshore detention of asylum seekers have long justified their policies by pointing to the scale of their annual Humanitarian Programme. At the most direct, these defenses accuse countries like New Zealand of being hypocrites by claiming to care for refugees but taking very few through humanitarian channels.

In the last year, however, the balance has changed, as Australia’s Humanitarian Programme has been cut while New Zealand’s projected intake has substantially grown. While Covisd-19 has seen the actual intakes of both countries wither, it is worth considering where our quotas will place the two countries once the process is allowed to resume.

The need to revisit these relative intakes is to attend to a perception of a massive disparity between these countries that lingers, as well as to consider the moral claims behind these comparisons. These perceptions and claims live through a low boil of social media antagonisms but occasionally bubble over into mainstream news commentary.

I have a particularly strong stake in these comparisons as, back in 2013, my campaign to double New Zealand’s refugee quota drew strongly on the fact that Australia’s quota was five times greater than New Zealand’s. Back in 2013, Julia Gillard’s Labor government had set their annual intake at 20,000 per annum, while New Zealand’s – under John Key – was stuck at 750 and hadn’t grown since 1987. Those numbers are part of the story, but not the whole story. The double the quota campaign soon accounted for the fact that New Zealand’s quota didn’t include asylum seekers given refugee status while Australia’s did. Similarly, most of New Zealand’s refugee family reunification isn’t included in the quota, while most of Australia’s is. The same goes for the new community sponsorship of refugees programmes and pilot.

These extra places – as well as New Zealand’s quota growing from that 2013 starting point, and Australia’s shrinking (aside from the emergency Syrian intakes of 2015) – meant that, by 2017, the campaign was able to claim that: ‘if we double the quota [to 1500 places] New Zealand will still only be doing half as much as Australia’.

Then Covid-19 arrived and the borders were closed, humanitarian intakes were paused and any sense of migration as usual were lost. A year on from those restrictions, much has changed. I don’t want to dwell too much on the small numbers that have come through managed isolation so far, though it is worth noting how Australia and New Zealand lag at continuing resettlement compared to Europe and Canada. My main focus in this article is to look at how recent changes that have yet to come into effect look set to change the landscape of the trans-Tasman comparisons. These calculations require a little bit of faith that things will return to normal and that we can trust the governments to follow what they say they will do. You can take a pinch of salt with that if you must.


The numerical equations

As it stands, Australia’s next full intake will comprise 13,750 people. As Paul Power from the Refugee Council of Australia notes, this is a permanent cut that takes the Australian humanitarian intake back to the level of the Abbot government (who cut it from 20,000).

New Zealand’s next full intake requires more addition: their comparable refugee humanitarian intake will be 1500 places in the refugee quota, plus 600 family reunification, approximately 180 as asylum-seekers accepted as refugees and fifty through community sponsored places. As noted above, all these extra categories are included under Australia’s Humanitarian Programme umbrella. If you add them all up, then adjust for the relative population (Australia just over five times that of New Zealand on latest comparable estimates, or 5.03 to be precise), it indicates that Australia takes 1.17 times as many refugees per capita as New Zealand.

Given the current vicissitudes – will either side even hit their full quotas? – it is not unfair to assume actual refugee intakes will be more or less equal between the countries. Meaning that, for the first time in history, New Zealand will be accepting roughly as many refugees per capita as Australia.

Before New Zealanders start feeling too good about themselves, it is worth noting some strong caveats beyond Covid-19. Firstly, New Zealand has yet to meet the target of 1500 places and to do so will require setting up five new resettlement locations. Secondly, New Zealand’s aim of 1500 places is the outcome of a hard-fought double campaign while Australia’s is a low that does not reflect the policies of all political parties. The current situation compares Australia’s centre-right with New Zealand’s centre-left, while in 2013 it was New Zealand centre-right vs Australia’s centre-left. Switch these governing parties back again and Australia’s intake may well double while New Zealand’s could be cut. In that case, Australia’s intake – all things being equal – would balloon out to four times that of New Zealand.

Recent discussions about refugees have – at least in social media – also been about defending the prime minister of the day in each country. For those who want to compare policies of prime ministers on refugees, it seems logical to compare the changes in quotas in their respective terms in office. We’ll find then Jacinda Ardern has pledged to increase the core resettlement quota by 50 per cent and has doubled family reunification places. Scott Morrison has cut Australia’s intake by 36 per cent. So even as Australia has historically accepted far more refugees than New Zealand, starting with the hands they were dealt, Ardern is far more accepting than Morrison.


The moral equations

The numbers in the previous section aren’t just a tool to tell a political story about one nation or another. Each number represents a new chance for a person who has been wrenched from everything they’ve ever known. Therefore the comparisons between these numbers represent very real changes in our nations’ commitment to actual people. I have no qualms standing by such comparisons in any campaign to improve refugee protection.

But if we look at how these statistics are most commonly used, we find that it is rare for the focus of these comparisons to be genuinely grounded in heightened concern for displaced people. As noted earlier, the contrasts are more about accusations of hypocrisytu quoque! – than encouraging collective responsibility. The ‘refugee’ in these comparisons has become a stand-in for something other than actual displaced people.

Judging by my social media timeline, whenever a moral question around migration or citizenship is raised – for example, the responsibility for Suhayra Aden and her children or the treatment of New Zealanders in Australian immigration detention and their subsequent deportation – the refugee is as quickly invoked to score a point as they are forgotten. It’s not far from the reciprocal accusations that characterised the Cold War.

We should be much keener to resist comparisons that see one humane act entered into an ethical ledger in order to balance some other moral deficit. That resistance to comparison should not seem so alien because we deploy it more often than we might think. The same approach can be found every time a New Zealander refuses to justify Pākehā domination because it is better – in some regards – for Māori than for other people who were subject to colonial genocide. It’s the same every time an Australian backs the inquiry into unlawful killings of non-combatants by the Australian Defence Force in Afghanistan instead of saying ‘well, war is war, isn’t it?’ or ‘others were worse than us’.

When pushing back against dubious moral equivalences, we also leave space for the very necessary comparisons that push for genuine humanitarian protection. With less time spent time on point-scoring nationalism, we might spend more time insisting that Covid-19 need not be such a barrier to meeting our humanitarian goals when it comes to the protection of refugees.


Image from the  ‘Remember Tampa’ Melbourne rally in 2006, Flickr

Murdoch Stephens

Murdoch Stephens is the author of Doing Our Bit: the Campaign to Double the Refugee Quota (BWB Text, 2018) and the novels Rat King Landlord and Down from Upland (Lawrence and Gibson, 2020 & 2022).

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