Few options for the desperate

2 August 2013, 00:00 UTC | New Zealand, Australia
Outside Akçakale refugee camp 3 © Amnesty International/Anna Shea
By Grant Bayldon - Executive Director Amnesty International NZ

I’m not told the name of the well-dressed, 30-something-year-old man I’m introduced to in Bangkok, and I know not to ask.

He shows me the outside of his red Myanmar passport. It wouldn’t seem worth much to me – there’s not many countries a Myanmar passport will get you into – but he holds it like gold dust.

It’s hard to place a value on belonging to a country – any country – until you meet people who don’t. The fact this man even has a passport is surprising, for he is Rohingya, an ethnic minority group in Myanmar that has been described by the United Nations as one of the most persecuted in the world.

"Over the centuries, Myanmar – also known as Burma – has repeatedly turned on the Rohingya like a body whose immune system attacks itself."

Grant Bayldon, Executive Director at Amnesty International New Zealand

Over the centuries, Myanmar – also known as Burma – has repeatedly turned on the Rohingya like a body whose immune system attacks itself.

Denied equal access to citizenship in their own country, the catalogue of abuses against this Muslim minority includes restrictions on freedom of movement, property ownership, marriage, number of children, work and religious practice. If that wasn't bad enough, since 2012 murderous rampages between Buddhist and Muslim communities have caused many Rohingya to flee for their lives.

This man is one of the lucky ones. He had a successful business until death threats forced him to abandon it. So he has some choices – unlike all those who fled by boat hoping to make it to Thailand or Bangladesh. Many never did.

He can overstay his visitor visa to Thailand - but not legally work, and spend the rest of his life in fear of arrest or deportation back to Myanmar.

He can return to Myanmar from where he recently fled, and risk the lives of his family.

Or he can go to Indonesia as a visitor and risk getting on a boat to Australia.

So I’m really not surprised that he is planning on taking the Australia boat option.

I try to warn him of the dangers of the crossing – that many people drown and that even if his family makes it, they face years of offshore detention before the Australian Government would even begin to process their asylum claim. I know he hasn't really got much of a choice. He shrugs his shoulders and both our eyes mist up.

This was awhile ago now. If I met this man now, I would need to tell him even this choice has been taken away.

If he chooses the dangerous boat journey he won’t ever find himself one day resettled in Australia. Because the Australian Government has announced it will now refuse to resettle asylum seekers who arrive by boat. Instead, they will be permanently deported to Papua New Guinea, a country where people already face significant human rights abuses.

I think the guilt I felt at being able to jump on a plane back to New Zealand a couple of days later – or to pretty much anywhere – showed. I wanted to tell him New Zealand was a viable choice, because it's a country where he wouldn’t face death and persecution simply for the ethnic group he was born into. That his young children would learn English quickly and that he would be free to set up his business again.

But I didn’t, because his chances of ever getting accepted into New Zealand on our refugee programme are slim.

We like to think we’re doing our bit, but the sad fact is that while the quality of our refugee resettlement programme is very good, our total intake of refugees and asylum seekers each year is tiny by world standards.

"We like to think we’re doing our bit, but the sad fact is that while the quality of our refugee resettlement programme is very good, our total intake of refugees and asylum seekers each year is tiny by world standards."

Grant Bayldon

Each year New Zealand takes 750 people from the United Nations refugee programme, as well as accepts on average 150 asylum seekers who claim protection once they arrive here.

While the Government has made the welcome announcement that it will refurbish its resettlement centre, it has also said it won’t be increasing the quota. In comparison, Australia accepts a total of 20,000 refugees each year and is seeking to increase it to 27,000.

That’s already five times as many per capita as New Zealand. And even the Australian intake is small compared to the hundreds of thousands who continue to flee to Syria’s neighbouring countries, or the 2 million Afghan refugees in Iran and Pakistan. When we think of our small effort on the world stage, the recent calls to double our refugee quota are modest to say the least.

We don’t want the issue to become a political football in New Zealand like it has in Australia, and yes, we’d need a corresponding increase in the support required to resettle refugees well. But right now we’re punching well below our weight.

New Zealand should be stepping up to make a genuine commitment to a regional solution – part of which is increasing the New Zealand quota and the resources that go along with that. And if ever there were a time for this to happen, it is now. According to the Uniated Nations, the number of people who have fled their homes as a result of conflict and persecution worldwide is the highest since the mid-1990s.

The spirit of Kiwi hospitality shown by Hamilton in welcoming the Afghan interpreters and their families recently should remind us that it’s time to do our bit.

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