No need to follow Australia's contentious lead

Last updated 05:00 25/05/2014

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God help asylum seekers who think they can make it to New Zealand safely by boat.

OPINION: Your lives may be desperate but it would be fatal to believe the lies your traffickers are selling. People are dying just to get from Indonesia to Australia's Christmas Island.

They aren't even trying to make it as far as Darwin. It's hard to imagine the 4000km voyage you would have to endure to get to New Zealand, especially with ill-equipped, unethical traffickers. Too many have died trying to find safety just 200km away. Not one boatload of asylum seekers has arrived on these shores - in modern history anyway.

Australia's move to completely shut its ocean borders to asylum seekers is setting what may be a dangerous new precedent. They now eject boats from their waters, forcibly tow them back to Indonesia and vow never to let refugees settle in Australia, even though 90 per cent of boat arrivals have been found to be genuine refugees in the past.

Those that do arrive are imprisoned in what can only be described as modern-day gulags, ignoring the refugee conventions Australia has promised to uphold.

But Australia has taken its anti-asylum regime even further. Even though it receives only a fraction of the asylum arrivals of land-connected countries, Australia is now effectively selling these people to poor countries that need the cash.

Nauru and Papua New Guinea have already agreed to set up Australia-run prisons. Last month Australia approached Cambodia to take people too. They're interested.

What does this policy look like for the families involved? Endemic self-harm rates, suicides, hangings from tent poles, attempted drownings, people drinking shampoo or any chemicals they can find. Children are imprisoned too.

Headlines tell the tale. In February, locals broke into the Manus camp with machetes and iron bars and were joined by guards who went room by room assaulting up to 77 people, killing one man, allegedly in retaliation for a protest.

In April, guards were accused of assaulting children.

In May, The Guardian reported a Salvation Army whistleblower called one Manus Island block a "rape dungeon". Even the governor of Port Moresby recently took out full-page newspaper ads calling Australia's policy "repugnant", against their traditions and culture. China condemned Australia's human rights violations in March.

What is New Zealand saying about all this? Not a word.

Indeed, our deafness is profound. Immigration Minister, Michael Woodhouse, told Dunedin student newspaper Critic last week, "I've seen no clear evidence that there are human rights abuses in those places that is being perpetrated by the Australian Government."

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The question remains, is New Zealand interested in buying into Australia's contentious $3.5b offshore detention policy?

Apparently, we are.

Last year New Zealand, too, agreed to take 150 of Australia's refugees every year in return for quiet political concessions. Tony Abbott has put the deal on hold, for now. He doesn't want to see New Zealand become a "consolation prize".

Why did we agree to take 150 refugees annually from Australia when we haven't been willing to raise our own stagnant quota from UNHRC for 27 years?

It seems Australia has been playing hardball with us too. Australia has threatened to shepherd boats across the Tasman into our waters, as John Key admitted in Parliament last February.

What's more, our Prime Minister has also endorsed the idea of potentially sending any New Zealand boat arrivals to Australia's Nauru and Manus Island prisons, if a boat ever does arrive one day.

We may never easily answer the question: how can we stop the boats? Instead the pressing question to ask is: how can we stop Australia from reneging on its humanitarian obligations, creating what may be a new deadly corridor to New Zealand?

If Australia has openly chosen not to uphold its UN-agreed human rights responsibilities, responsibilities that are dwarfed by the numbers Europe and North America accept, what countries will be next?

As an already respected world leader on this issue, how can New Zealand lead?

Key could state publically that New Zealand will not be a party to Australia's inhumane detention policy on Nauru and Manus Island.

Australia's two-decade long domestic detention policy seems proof enough that detention doesn't equal deterrence. Our common sense community-based approach can be 92 per cent cheaper and creates better-adjusted citizens in the end.

We should reject Australia's immoral policy of peddling human lives to other countries. And if we want to be good regional players, we should up our UNHCR refugee quota.

Finally, we can keep the discourse in this country respectful. It is not worthy of our own leaders to use derogatory, inflammatory, imported slurs like "queue-jumpers" (a queue doesn't exist; resettlement is needs-based first), or "illegals" (asylum is a legal right, according to the refugee conventions we signed over 50 years ago). Fear mongering only generates xenophobia that is not welcome here.

I want to believe we are better than that.

- Tracey Barnett is the author of The Quiet War on Asylum and creator of a Facebook campaign WeAreBetterThanThat.

- Sunday Star Times

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