New Zealand Government has duty to challenge Australia

16 November 2016, 10:18 UTC | Australia
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By Grant Bayldon, Executive Director at Amnesty International New Zealand

Does our mateship with Australia really extend to silent acceptance?

Have you ever wondered what stopped Nelson Mandela from giving up through decades of imprisonment? What kept Anne Frank writing her diary day after day?


It's tempting to think families who have fled war or persecution - whether from the Taliban or the Myanmar Government - must have already endured so much that they would have lost all hope.

Many have survived unimaginable journeys to try to get to safety. But it's hard to imagine a group of people with more courage and resilience . . . and hope.

Where does this hope come from? What builds it?

A crucial element lies with us. When we openly share our vision for a just and equal society, when we talk about the values that underpin it, and when we point out behaviours that work against it, we build hope for people caught in terrible circumstances. Hope for the possibility of a new, brighter future.

But the responsibility doesn't just lie with us as individuals. It extends to our Government as well. Unfortunately, there's a gaping hole when it comes to the New Zealand Government pointing out behaviour that goes against our values, behaviour that's happening right here in our region.

The Australian Government is breaking refugees and asylum seekers in a way that the Taliban or the Myanmar Government could not.

By banishing them to what are little more than prison islands with no idea of when, or even if, they will ever be released, it has taken away the one thing that we all need.

When Amnesty International released the report ''Island of Despair'', documenting horrific conditions that amount to torture of people - including women and children - stuck in the detention centre on Nauru, did our Government point out anything wrong with Australia's behaviour? Silence.

This week, Australia announced a deal for some of the refugees trapped on Nauru and Manus Island to be settled in the US. It's not an acceptable solution.

Australia is simply passing the buck - its ''border protection'' policy remains and people seeking asylum may still get sent to the detention centres.

The centres need to be emptied and closed. Has the New Zealand Government criticised the practice of offshore detention in any way? Silence.

Recent polling by UMR showed 79% of New Zealanders think our Prime Minister and Government should speak out against the evidence of abuse in Australian offshore detention centres. There's a mandate for you. Our Government's response? Silence.

During the UN human rights review of Australia last year, more than 100 countries made recommendations on Australia's human rights record, about 75% of which were about the detention centres and mandatory detention of asylum seekers, particularly in relation to children. Did our Government raise any of those concerns? Silence.

Adding insult to injury, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is proposing a ban on refugees who arrive by boat from ever entering Australia.

Prime Minister John Key and Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse have repeated an offer to settle 150 of the refugees here, shrugging their shoulders that Australia is not accepting the offer because, as New Zealanders, the refugees could travel to Australia.

Despite that, Article 31 of the 1951 Refugee Convention, to which Australia is a party, clearly states that countries are prohibited from imposing penalties based on people's mode of arrival, what have we heard from our Government about this attempt at a callous and cruel punishment? Silence.

Does our mateship with Australia really extend so far?

There are men stuck in the detention centre on Manus Island whose wives and children have been granted protection visas and are living in Australia.

If this law passes, families will be torn apart, or forced to go back to the countries they fled from. The New Zealand I know stands up for its values.

It is incoherent for our Government to point out human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia and Syria but fail to do so across the Tasman.

There is an inevitability to the end of Australia's policy of banishing people who come seeking safety; already the PNG courts have declared detention on Manus Island illegal.

Companies and organisations providing services at the Australian detention centres have either pulled out or declared they will not be renewing their contracts.

Until this deeply immoral experiment ends, building hope for the people forced into the Australian Government's deplorable detention centres is exactly what we must do.

We need them to know that there are people who see their humanity and their courage, people - and governments - who recognise they have the same right to freedom and to build their lives that we all do.

Take action: Build Hope: End Australia's offshore detention centres on Nauru, Manus and Christmas Island

Orginially published in the Otago Daily Times

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