We should keep offering
repatriation to home countries wracked by conflict and danger.
In 2001, after the cargo ship MV Tampa rescued 438 Afghan asylumseekers from a distressed fishing vessel in international waters, Clark’s Government successfully offered to take 150 of the Tampa refugees, as Australia struggled to deal with an increasing number of ‘‘boat people’’ fleeing the conflict at home in the hope of a better future. Their willingness to entrust their, and in many instances their families’, safety to vessels of questionable seaworthiness was an indication of the level of their desperation.
Fast-forward 16 years and Ardern is persistently trying to get Australian counterpart Malcolm Turnbull to agree to let New Zealand take 150 genuine refugees from Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island, where a full-blown humanitarian crisis is unfolding, and Nauru. Former Prime Minister John Key made a similar offer in February 2016, which Turnbull refused on the grounds it would look like a ‘‘marketing opportunity’’ for the peoplesmugglers who have brought so many asylum-seekers Australia’s way over the last two decades.
It’s an argument we’ve heard before, and one long advanced in defence of Australia’s increasingly hardline stance on asylum-seekers. It’s hard to deny it has a degree of validity, especially given it is far more easily geographically accessible than New Zealand. What it ignores, though, is that once genuine asylum-seekers, desperate enough to take the risk - and possibly unaware of their potential long-term incarceration - have handed over their money to peoplesmugglers and made the hazardous trip south, they are caught in the middle of a long-term struggle in which their human rights are not top priority.
New Zealand’s offer to Australia could potentially end the long-term suffering of 150 genuine refugees - plainly they would be carefully vetted - caught in unrelenting, grinding desperation, graphically illustrated by the refusal of so many Manus Island detainees to leave for alternative facilities in the island’s main town, Lorengau. Their rallying call has been that they will not leave their current location for any reason other than freedom, despite the deprivations they face.
Thus far, what we’ve heard from across the ditch is that Turnbull would prefer to pursue a possible deal with the United States than take up New Zealand’s offer, as tough as it is to see that working out under the distracted Trump Administration.
In the circumstances, Ardern should keep making the offer at every opportunity, in the hope that eventually Turnbull sees sense and at least some of these beleaguered refugees get the chance for a new life.