Editorial: National's decision on refugees is mean-spirited and callous

Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse.

Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse.

OPINION: The Government's decision to increase the refugee quota to 1000 is mean-spirited and risks being called callous. 

It is also very bad politics. 

Refugees continue to drown in the Mediterranean in their desperate attempt to reach safety and civilisation.

While millions flee civil war and oppression, John Key's Government has decided to lift its annual refugee quota by  just 250. Its excuses for this miserly decision, to use Peter Dunne's phrase, are pitiful. 

It accuses refugees of failing to integrate into New Zealand. The hapless Immigration Minister, Michael Woodhouse, laments their inability to learn English or find work.

He finds a judicious middle way in the Government's decision. It could have doubled the quota to 1500, he says, or left it at 750. Instead, it has made a moderate yet somehow generous decision to lift the number "by a third".

A third of very little, minister, is very little indeed. Especially when New Zealand's refugee intake is at a level which is already deeply troubling. 

Woodhouse tries to defend this by saying the quota per capita puts us at about seventh in the world. But when the actual refugee intake is counted, including arrivals granted asylum, we plunge down to about 90th.

Australia, by comparison, takes three times as many refugees per head as we do. Woodhouse claims that Australia "has to explain" its notorious  immigration policies. It certainly does; Australia has stained its international reputation by detaining  boatpeople in hellish camps on Pacific islands. 

But National's refugee policy is also a stain on our reputation and equally "needs explaining".

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The Key Government can't "explain" its harsh decision, save by crying poverty. We can't afford more refugees, it says. For that reason the increased quota won't even take effect till 2018, when the extra Syrian refugee intake ends. But the refugees will spark an increase in the vote of $25 million.

We can afford to double the intake if we really want to. We could spend $50m extra if we really wanted to. But the National Government doesn't want to.

Why? This is something of a mystery. Key's fabled political skills have here clearly deserted him. 

The other political parties have outbid him – even ACT wants to do the decent thing. Meanwhile the world's greatest refugee crisis since World War II continues to explode all around us.

In this hour of desperate need, the Government responds by doing the  minimum. 

For John Key the failure is personal as well as political. He is the son of a Jewish refugee from Hitler's regime. He, of all politicians in this country, must have some insight into what "being a refugee" actually means. 

It is especially frustrating to hear Key talk about New Zealand values of tolerance and fairness. New Zealand's record on refugees in fact provides little to be proud of. 

 - Stuff

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