I’ve just seen something really stupid. It came in the form of leaflets dropped in their hundreds nearby the recent WOMAD Festival at New Plymouth by a group calling itself Right Wing Resistance.
The leaflets call for people and supplies in order to mount an Armed Coastal Patrol to intercept boatloads of refugees which may head this way in future. RWR also says that it aims to stop illegal foreign fishing, “as the Government cannot be trusted to serve New Zealand interests.” Its requests for assistance include “defensive weapons”. Yeah Right.
Coming back to the refugees, RWR assets “New Zealand does not have the land or resources to become a ‘lifeboat’ for Third World overpopulation.” Now, that may be true – after all, we’re not exactly a large country either in population or in land area.
But it highlights a fundamental level of ignorance which runs much wider than the xenophobes in Right Wing Resistance. The core assumption is that people who get onto boats operated by people smugglers travelling from South-East Asia to Western countries are a form of economic migrants, who are simply hoping to find a better life than that in their homeland. This is somewhat farcical. After all, travelling on these boats is highly dangerous. Thousands of people disappear at sea every year on board one of the rusted, overcrowded piles of junk which seem to be the standard form of smuggler sailing craft. We even get to hear of such incidents on New Zealand news – which, considering the rather scanty coverage of international events in our mainstream media, suggests that it is likely that people thinking of getting on board might just have heard something about the risks by now. If they merely wanted to get to someplace where the grass is greener, it is somewhat improbable that they would go to such lengths to do so.
Or I might be wrong. Nevertheless, the ignorance of mixing up economic migrants with refugees can be shown up in another way. For some years now, boatloads of people have turned up in Australia and have been processed by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC). This is partly why fears have grown that one day the boats will get over here. After all, a ship carrying 500 Sri Lankans made landfall as far away as Canada in 2009, so it’s clearly possible. Anyway, the point is that about 84% of all boat people are granted refugee status by DIAC. That is according to 2009 figures supplied to me by the Human Rights Foundation.
Now, it’s quite hard to be recognised as a refugee. You have to show that you face a real, independently credible fear of suffering serious harm – imprisonment, torture, psychological trauma or death – and your government cannot or will not protect you. Furthermore, you must connect that fear of harm to your religion, your political belief or some other aspect of your identity. And everyone knows that the Aussies are no softies when it comes to refugees. After all, they put them in camps out on the desert for years at a time, where it is not uncommon for inmates to kill themselves to escape their conditions or else suffer further mental injury.
In summary, the boat people are not some kind of overpopulation runoff. Almost all are entitled to asylum by virtue of international law. And New Zealand has an obligation to provide sanctuary, as do all signatory countries of the 1951 Refugee Convention and other treaties of that ilk.
So if anyone whines to me about how we have to stop the tide of foreign freeloaders from invading our “free land”, I can say to them with confidence that they should give thanks that they have never had to make the choices these people may have made.