The deep silence of the Pacific

The ‘Pacific’ Ocean is a misnomer. For many sailors, when roused, it is anything but peaceful. The Pacific was given its name by Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan in response to his relatively tranquil trip across the great southern ocean. Søren Kierkegaard, the great Danish philosopher and theologian, saw it like Magellan, and imagined in its deep silence the best trope to counter the uproar of ‘nations in migration’:

In a minute I shall be there where my soul longs to be, there where ideas spume with elemental fury, where thoughts arise uproariously like nations in migration, there where at other times there is a stillness like the deep silence of the Pacific Ocean, a stillness in which one hears oneself speak even though the movement takes place only in one’s interior being, there where each moment one is staking one’s life, each moment losing it and finding it again.

Today, the Pacific and uproarious migration are synonymous. The uproar has reached New Zealand via a pair of sources – the chambers of parliament and the fourth estate. The back and forth between these sources only intensifies despite the absence of any actual asylum seeker mass arrivals. Newspapers in search of a scoop have headlined with any hint of a plan to get to New Zealand. In May 2014, reporter Tony Wall’s investigations into a people smuggler’s claims was headlined ‘Desperate bid to reach New Zealand’ – this without any strong evidence he could get people 4000 kilometres from Indonesia to New Zealand.

Our Minister of Immigration couldn’t quite keep the grin off his face as he offered his sternest Winston Churchill impression, and conjured up images of invading refugee armadas. Or maybe he was aiming for a Presidential tone as he insisted that all options remained on the table.

The governing right wing loved it: they could play the strict enforcers of sovereign New Zealand, despite immigration being at record levels. The opposition left thought it prudent to deny that the boats might arrive at all, citing the lack of any such occurrence in the past. They loved it a little less than the government, but were content being able to mock the right’s scaremongering.

Only Tracey Barnett, a journalist and asylum seeker advocate, eschewed the will-they-or-won’t-they soothsaying. The point, she clarified, was not whether they would come or not, but how we would treat them if they did. Would we jail them? Would we process their claims in the community like those who arrive by air? Would we cosy up to Abbott and ship them off to Manus Island or Nauru?

Barnett leads the ‘We Are Better Than That’ campaign to educate New Zealanders about the danger of following the Australian model of mass detention of asylum seekers who arrive by sea. She has campaigned against the Immigration Amendment Act, which allows for the mass detention of asylum seekers arriving as a group of 30 or more, as well as a prospective deal that would have seen New Zealand take 150 refugees from Australia’s offshore detention centres. The latter deal was put on hold when Tony Abbott said that resettlement in New Zealand would not be ‘a consolation prize’ for asylum seekers.

But with no boats to speak of and the New Zealand Refugee Claims Branch accepting just 79 asylum seekers from 292 claims in 2013, the assertion ‘We Are Better Than That’ has simply not been tested.

At any rate, isn’t ‘We Are Better Than That’ a normative rather than a descriptive claim? The phrase implies that New Zealand’s response to asylum seekers should be better than Australia’s. But there is also, underlying the phrase, the fear that if tested New Zealand might not be better than that and that, perhaps, we’d find a way to be worse.


Trans-Tasman pride and prejudice

The Tampa Affair in August 2001 marked the beginning of Australia’s use of Nauru and Manus Island as an attempt to circumvent their responsibilities in international law. The Tampa Affair gave the Howard government a convenient crisis with which to launch jingoistic rhetoric. That rhetoric transformed the 2001 election and all politics since, with ‘asylum seekers’ registering as the second most important issue in the 2011 election according to ABC’s Vote Compass.

From across the Tasman we’ve watched the battles, and our public understanding of refugee issues has been infused with the same rhetoric. Most New Zealanders know the phrases ‘boat people’ and ‘queue jumpers’ from the Australian example. Our own prime minister has also tested out our public by using these noxious terms. But on top of that we’ve also heard the thousands of people challenging this language and refusing a reactionary politics of fear.

The Tampa Affair played a very different role in New Zealander’s collective identity. Though few Kiwis can recall the exact details, most know that where Australia turned the boat away, we took in some asylum seekers. Our former Prime Minister Helen Clark offered to assess the asylum claims of 131 people from the Tampa, accepting all who met the UN standards. Thereafter, New Zealand took a similar number as part of our annual quota of 750 places. It was a shrewd move by Clark, who anticipated that the best way to pull at New Zealanders’ humanitarian instincts was to appeal to our desire to be better than Australians. Howard, through gritted teeth, offered his thanks to Clark and praised her as ‘Australia’s best friend’.

Ten years after the event, Clark described it as one of her proudest as prime minister. The immigration minister at the time, Lianne Dalziel, said it made her feel particularly proud of being a New Zealander. Stories about the successes of ‘the Tampa boys’ continue to remind New Zealanders of how we really are better than that. One of the boys offered asylum from the MV Tampa won the hearts of New Zealanders when he said, ‘Australia didn’t want us because they thought we were terrorists … but New Zealand listened to us and they thought we weren’t terrorists.’

A wildly different example with a similarly popular outcome can be found in the case of Ahmed Zaoui, a former lecturer in Islamic Studies in Algeria. A 1991 coup stopped the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS), of which Zaoui was a candidate, from taking office. Two years later Zaoui fled, shuffling around Europe and South East Asia until 2002, when he boarded a flight from Vietnam to New Zealand. Detained in solitary confinement for almost a year, Zaoui was slapped with a negative security risk certificate from our expanded, post September 11 Security Intelligence Services (SIS).

Over the course of five years, public sentiment moved towards Zaoui and away from the SIS. This was primarily due to two reasons: the lack of transparency around the processes that led to the issuing of the risk assessment certificate, and the persistence of Zaoui’s supporters. By the time Zaoui was to be released in 2007, he was being lauded in the New Zealand Listener as a ‘beloved Kiwi folk hero and Jeffersonian democrat’. Zaoui’s release was followed, eventually, by his reunification with his family. Last year he was formally granted New Zealand citizenship and today he works at a popular food court in downtown Auckland.

Twice in one decade liberal New Zealanders took pride in welcoming people who were rejected by the Australian and New Zealand governments. With these few moments of pride, no mass arrivals of asylum seekers and a dollop of trans-Tasman human-rights rivalry, New Zealanders remain fairly unconcerned about scare newspaper headlines and more than open to doing our fair share for refugees.


Today’s comparisons

So New Zealanders, and particularly liberal New Zealanders, take pride in moments when we offer sanctuary to those unwanted by the rest of the world. But aside from these few moments, is New Zealand really better than Australia?

In receiving so few asylum seekers, New Zealand has quite simply never been tested. As the present immigration minister reminds us, all options remain on the table, including a potential deal to tag along with Australia’s plans in the Pacific. While liberal Kiwis, like liberal Australians, are outraged by the Manus Island/Nauru ‘solution’, aside from the NZ Green Party, there has been only a small choir of Labour voices within parliament who have condemned Australia’s approach or categorically stated we would not do the same thing.

Our country’s history offers a similar mix of pride and prejudice. On the one hand, referring to our history of welcoming refugees, Paul Spoonley and Richard Bedford note, ‘initially, the New Zealand Government was extremely cautious in terms of who it might consider [as refugees], unlike Canada and Australia which were much more generous’. In practice this meant New Zealand focused on bringing in Northern Europeans with a particular disdain towards those who might be communists or intellectuals. Similarly, James Belich found cause to describe our resettlement policies after the Second World War as ‘mean-spirited’. In that period, per head of population, New Zealand took two-thirds less than Australia. After noting that New Zealanders were ‘justifiably proud’ of our resettlement record, author of Refuge New Zealand Ann Beaglehole, stated that from the perspective of some refugees and asylum seekers, ‘New Zealand’s policies have been harsh’.

When New Zealand is praised for our refugee and asylum policies it is for the orderliness of our annual refugee resettlement quota. We take 750 cases per year in consultation with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and 300 places are made available for sponsoring family members. The work put in by the NGOs and volunteers in this sector is admirable and deserves credit, particularly where the resources are not in place to resettle refugees as these groups might like.

Our attitude to refugees is prejudiced, like Australia’s, against those who attempt to flee here on their own accord. This myth of the asylum seeker as queue jumper is just as alive and well in New Zealand. The disparaging reference to ‘queue jumpers’ draws on Orientalist conceptions of the disordered, childlike (selfish?) behaviour of non-Europeans who just need to wait their turn and then the system will work fine. Any cursory consideration of the numbers around quota resettlement and asylum rates proves this wrong: even before the massive exodus from Syria there were ten times more refugees per year than resettlement places allowed. One chance in ten of being resettled is not a queue; it’s a lottery.

In New Zealand, as with the rest of the West, the specters of war and terrorism have led to fears of immigrants from Africa and the Middle East. In 2009 those security fears, as well as a willingness to contribute towards the Bali Plan and Pacific Solution, led to the New Zealand government restricting refugees from Africa and the Middle East. Instead of welcoming almost a third of our quota from these two regions, refugees would be limited to family reunification. As a result, our intake from the Middle East halved in the last year, while those being welcomed from Africa dropped to just 3 per cent.

New Zealand’s raw figure of 750 quota refugees may seem like a fair amount when considered in isolation. But it pales in comparison to Australia’s 2013 quota of 20,000 places, which had Australia accepting five times as many refugees per capita as New Zealand. Even with last year’s halving of the humanitarian portion of Australia’s refugee quota under Tony Abbott’s Liberal Coalition, Australia now has 13,750 places, more than three times as many refugees per capita as New Zealand. On a per capita basis, Australia is poor, but New Zealand is woeful. If New Zealand’s quota does not increase at our 2016 review by 2019 Australia will accept more than four times as many refugees per capita as New Zealand

As soon as any such comparison is made, there are complications. First of all, Australia’s quota includes a sub-quota for asylum seekers, while the hundred-odd asylum seekers in New Zealand are not framed as a quota, though they have been figured in the comparisons above.

What about family reunification? Some, but not all, family reunification places are included in both countries’ quotas. Generally these are for immediate family members, but other options for migration are presented when a refugee becomes a citizen.

And doesn’t New Zealand take many of the hard cases such as 75 medical and disabled cases and up to 20 with HIV? For these medical categories, those are the upper limit of acceptable numbers, which would include the family of those with the disabilities. In 2013–14 we took just twelve people in the medical/disabled category. For other hard cases, there is anecdotal evidence that, prior to the present government’s refocus on Asia-Pacific, our quota was based less on our concern for assimilation potential and more on the needs of refugees. With the move away from the trouble zones of Africa and the Middle East, it’s no longer possible to say we’re focusing on the toughest cases.


Compare and contrast, then collaborate

Let’s just return to, and dwell upon, the comparison of refugee acceptance figures for a moment: Australia accepts 3.2 times as many refugees per capita as New Zealand. What does it mean? Does it mean that every Australian is 3.2 times more hospitable than New Zealanders? Is the average Australian 3.2 times more caring? These are the kind of questions with which those of us working to push the New Zealand government to increase our refugee resettlement quota make hay.

Since 2013 I’ve been running the Doing Our Bit campaign, which aims to double New Zealand’s refugee resettlement quota and funding. We’re focused on informing the New Zealand public of our country’s true standing in comparison to other countries, and lobbying politicians. At the last election we succeeded at getting Labour, who remain in opposition, to publicly commit to increasing the quota to 1000 places. Since then every party bar the ruling National party has said on at least one occasion that an increase to 1000 would be their preference.

In the weeks surrounding World Refugee Day the campaign received huge support and media coverage, not least because Amnesty adopted the double the quota ask, and having their Secretary General Salil Shetty visit New Zealand and make the request directly to our Prime Minister. And yet the government runs two lines: the quota is at the right level, according to the prime minister, and the government has an open mind on a quota increase according to the immigration minister.



One of our tactics has been appealing to the pride New Zealanders take in comparing our asylum seeker policies to those of Australia. We contrast that pride to the figures, such as those in the above images, for the number of refugees taken in our quota.

While the numbers of refugees, family reunification and asylum seekers are constantly changing with each country’s changing policies, our discomfort with using them comes from another source: were we being apologists for the Australian asylum seeker policies? Were our attempts to make New Zealanders realise how little we were doing also implicitly providing grounds for people to suggest Australia’s approach was justified because they accepted five times as many refugees per capita?

Our comparisons could also be seen as undermining the attempts of Australia’s refugee advocates in showing how few refugees were being hosted in Australia. ‘Hosting’ statistics includes those who reside in ones’ country but which have not yet or will never be put on a path towards rights in their country of residence.

Some Australian advocates like to play the same angle, pointing out that 80 per cent of refugees are hosted by developing countries and that Australia ranks as 32nd per capita at recognising asylum seekers. Some go further in noting that, when adjusted for GDP as a measure for country’s ability to assist refugees, Australia does even worse, ranking at 44th for hosting refugees per capita.

But it is not just New Zealand advocates that are making it hard for their Australian counterparts. The reverse is also true. Last year, in a wide-ranging overview of immigration in Australia on Radio New Zealand National, Australian Julian Burnside was quoted as saying New Zealand is the ‘moral superpower’ of the region. The interviewer attempted to add balance by noting that New Zealand had met its quota only once in the last six years. Despite the interviewer’s rejoinder, listeners are left with the distinct impressions that New Zealand is doing its fair share for refugees.

Prime Minister John Key has been trying the same appeal. After he admitted overstating the number of refugees we resettle every year (he said 3000–4000 but corrected himself to 1000 later the same day), Key went on to claim that our resettlement services would suffer if the quota was increased as, he claimed, Australia’s had when it was increased under the Labor government. Later that day I spoke with Paul Power, CEO of the Refugee Council of Australia, who said that post-arrival support services ‘organisations did a magnificent job of expanding to meet the increased demand for support services as the numbers of refugees increased. No-one in Australia has suggested that services were degraded in any way, because there is no evidence for this.’

But what are all these comparisons worth? Sometimes it feels like we’re participating in a comical parallel world of trans-Tasman sporting one-upmanship: instead of bragging about which cricket or league team is better, we assert which nation is worse at upholding human rights. I might offer an example of government spying; you counter with suppression of journalists. I offer a history of colonialist land expropriation; you offer a history of imperialist genocide.

The point with comparing New Zealand and Australia on refugees should not be to show which state is worse, and which people have to suffer through the most through their country’s electoral preferences. Instead, the point is to find fodder to hold those states to account, to challenge the sanctimony of power and the hubris of our fair-go mythologies.

Comparisons must spot the areas where our collective efforts have made a difference and where we can learn from one another’s struggles. When I see the pro-refugee marches through Melbourne and hear the catcalls against Canberra, I am buoyed beyond compare. There’s no need for trans-Tasman rivalry. What we need is more trans-Tasman solidarity.

New Zealand might be the little brother in this issue, but if Julian Burnside is happy to invoke New Zealand as the moral superpower of the region then surely there is work we can do together. What sort of work? At the least we need to disrupt our respective governments from legitimating their own programs with the support of each other. Beyond that I’d like to see a shared project to pressure the UNHCR in Canberra to more aggressively challenge Australia’s Pacific Solution and New Zealand’s stagnant quota. I’d like to see more exchanges of experts, commentators and activists. I want to learn how pressure was exerted on Labor for them to double the humanitarian portion of Australia’s quota in 2012.

This last year has seen two examples of Wellington activists targeting Australian interests: in March we marked the anniversary of the murder of Reza Berati by picketing the Australian High Commission. A month later Peace Action Wellington made their opposition to Australia’s refugee polices felt when Tony Abbott arrived at the opening of the Australian portion of a new war memorial. I’d like to see the same from Australian refugee and asylum seeker activists when our PM or immigration minister visits. Got a journalist friend who does the politics beat? Get them to ask New Zealand ministers why our refugee quota has not grown since 1987.

And, beyond that, I’d like to see new ways to speak of and practice closer humanitarian relations with as much gusto as when we’ve approached closer economic relations. This solidarity is our best shot of leading the uproar of migration to a Pacific as hospitable as that encountered by Ferdinand Magellan.


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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