There’s two aspects to the Syrian refugee crisis that are worth thinking about a bit more deeply. That’s because both of them represent something of a departure from past behaviour.
The first is the question which a few commentators, such as Tracy Watkins, have asked: How did John Key, the supposed master reader of the public mood, come to find himself off-side with the broader New Zealand public?
As she summarised it:
It may not have been tectonic, but the political ground appeared to shift under John Key this week.
There was suddenly a gap between Key and public opinion on more than one front – unfamiliar territory for the prime minister.
On the refugee crisis, Key was slow to wake up to the swelling consensus that it required a bigger humanitarian effort from New Zealand.
As graphic and tragic images from Europe put a human face to the crisis, the Government looked isolated in its view that New Zealand’s quota of 750 refugees a year is enough.
Key’s partial backdown on Thursday belatedly coat-tailed public opinion that we can and should do more.
So that’s one question.
But there’s another lying implicit in the same quote from Watkins – and in commentary from many others.
Why have Syrian refugees suddenly ignited such public sympathy and compassion?
Having a memory can be very useful sometimes – as can having the internet to check your memory.
It was a few short months ago that a fortress New Zealand policy on refugees went down quite well with the New Zealand public.
More interestingly, at that time Key made similar points in favour of keeping the yearly quota of refugees at 750 (plus family reunification and asylum seeker categories, in addition) as he has done in the past week.
Key then, as now, said he thought the 750 number was “about right“.
Similarly, then, as now, he argued that:
New Zealand differed from other countries who took more refugees in that the support we gave people settling here was much more extensive.
That included housing, language support programmes and financial assistance.
He said the question was whether taking more refugees would “degrade” the quality of support New Zealand offered once they arrived.
Key also argued that such boat people were potentially ‘queue jumpers’ who might get into New Zealand earlier than the patient applicants going through the correct procedures to be accepted as a refugee.
It’s actually a line that has a long history with this government.
In 2009, for example, we have this comment over Sri Lankan boat people:
About 330 Sri Lankans seeking asylum in Australia are aboard two boats off Indonesia, and the Australian Immigration Minister has raised the possibility of New Zealand taking some of them.
Prime Minister John Key says this is unlikely to happen, as it would reward queue jumpers over other refugees.
Given the so-called “Bali Process” that apparently New Zealand is part of, Australia had expected other countries in the region, such as New Zealand, to accept some of the asylum seekers:
But Mr Key says New Zealand would probably not agree to take any of the Sri Lankans, because it would not want to encourage what he described as “the wrong sort of behaviour“.
Immigration Minister Jonathan Coleman says there are thousands of displaced people in the Asia-Pacific region and the Government doesn’t want to reward queue jumpers.
Again, in 2011, and, again, over Sri Lankan boat people, John Key was adamant that queue jumpers would not be rewarded:
Prime Minister John Key says accepting a boat load of Sri Lankan asylum seekers would open the flood gates to “millions of others” and reward the “bad people”.
Key said New Zealand was not an inhumane country. The had Government [sic] accepted 750 refugees every year from the United Nations’s refugee agency, the UNHCR, which identified “legitimate” refugees.
“Once you start taking people in the form of people smugglers, you are rewarding the bad guys,” he told TV3’s Firstline programme. “You are rewarding people who are putting others’ lives at risk.”
There was no guarantee the Sri Lankans were actually refugees, Key said. “You open the flood gate, which as you see in Australia, is one you can’t stop.”
…”We turn them away where we can. We take those actions when people land at our airport, we turn them back and frankly that’s the way it should be because there is a very fair pathway.
“You come through the normal channels as a refugee otherwise you are jumping the queue.”
Then, in 2012, changes to the Immigration Act were explained by Immigration Minister Nathan Guy, at a Press Conference with John Key, in these terms:
At a press conference with Prime Minister John Key, Guy said the legislation sent the message New Zealand was not a soft touch.
People smugglers should know that queue jumpers would not be allowed to push in front of genuine refugees.
Those changes to the Act, by the way, reinforce the tough stance that has been taken by this government, making the overall intake process more restrictive:
Under other changes:
* A claimant’s refugee status will be reassessed three years after it is first determined, with permanent residence not granted unless this reassessment is approved.
* Family reunification rules will also be restricted, so that those who do gain residence after three years can sponsor their immediate family members to join them in New Zealand, but not their extended family members.
The article concludes with Guy reiterating this ‘tough’ stance and it being re-emphasised that the 750 refugee quota would remain:
“This legislation is not about punishing people with a genuine claim for refugee status. It’s about sending a strong message that queue jumpers won’t be tolerated, and people smugglers will not be rewarded.”
New Zealand remained committed to accepting its annual quota of up to 750 UNHCR-mandated refugees.
The government, then, has had a long-standing, almost boringly consistent line on taking refugees who do not go through ‘proper channels’ despite, as Key noted above, being aware that there are “millions of others” behind a metaphorical “flood gate” of potential refugees.
Importantly, this stance also remained consistent despite, in the Sri Lankan refuge-seekers (actually often asylum seekers) case, people fleeing a decades-long civil war that culminated in an estimated 30,000 people dying in the final push by the Sri Lankan government against the Tamil rebels in 2009 and despite the United Nations’ failure to assist during that time.
Fleeing a vicious and bloody civil war? Sorry, no reason to be a ‘queue jumper’.
[As an aside, it’s worth reading Gordon Campbell’s 2013 column on how, so often, our governments have invoked ‘queue jumping’ and, most disturbingly, have done so while blurring the quite different processes for ‘refugees’ and ‘asylum seekers’. The latter are always to be treated outside of the 750 annual refugee quota and so are obviously not “queue jumpers“.]
So, if history is any guide, is it any surprise that John Key’s rote response to the current refugee crisis in Europe was simply a redux of the lines that had served him so well in the recent past – and lines which certainly do not seem to have damaged his electoral popularity?
Recent New Zealand public sentiment, then, was probably one factor that helped to blind-side John Key when the Syrian (and other) refugee situation in Europe emerged as the humanitarian crisis du jour. To repeat: again and again in recent times, his usual line on refugees has served him well.
So why not once more with(out) feeling?
Before continuing I should, however, make one revealing point about this government’s ‘consistency’ over refugee intakes.
Back in 2013 – and the incident that prompted the Gordon Campbell column linked to just above – John Key announced that New Zealand, as part of its 750 refugee quota, would commit to taking 150 refugees forcibly detained in Australia’s detention centres on “the island state of Nauru or Manus in Papua New Guinea“.
These very boat people, of course, are part of the self-same “millions of others” who, supposedly, had been little more than “queue jumpers” while they were on their boats.
Once in Australia’s detention centres, however, for our Prime Minister they suddenly became eligible to be a full 20% of the maximum quota of refugees annually taken in by New Zealand .
Not so much jumping the queue as pole-vaulting into the ‘preferential’ lane – a bit like the New Zealand and Australia passport queue at our airports.
All of which is quite miraculous but, apparently, possible – at least in John Key’s mind which was, in fact, acutely aware of his government’s debt of gratitude to Australia:
Mr Key justified the new arrangement by indicating it was New Zealand’s way of paying its way for use of Australia’s more sophisticated intelligence gathering on illegal migration which is shared with New Zealand.
“We get a huge amount of support from Australia. It’s less resources that we have to put in.”
Australia had been extremely helpful to New Zealand over the past four or five years.
“There are boats that we can point to that were on their way to New Zealand where Australia has effectively taken those people.
Queue jumping and “rewarding the bad guys” no longer matter, it seems, when you are paying back a mate.
To sum up, over the past seven years the government’s refugee policy was apparently designed to show the world that “New Zealand was not a soft touch” – unless you’re Australia for whom we reserve squishy soft bits.
It’s an interesting exception to the ‘party line’ this government has operated since 2008 – and I think it’s an exception that helps explain the second question I began with: Why, now, the change in public sentiment?
The New Zealand public has demonstrated little appetite recently for opening New Zealand’s doors any wider to the world’s growing population of refugees.
Vicious civil wars or people fleeing oppressive and brutal regimes could not, it seems, affect the general population’s sanguine and presumably supportive response to the government’s ‘tough’ position on “queue jumpers“, no matter what their circumstances.
New Zealanders, that is, have appeared more than happy that the “flood gates” remain watertight. Never once, so far as I’m aware, has social media reverberated with tidal waves of compassion for the “millions of others” around the world – even those quite close by – who have often spent years or decades as homeless wanderers risking life and limb to get to safe refuge.
Take, for example, this no doubt now long-forgotten refugee crisis of another group of ‘boat people’ in our near vicinity:
A year ago, the world was shocked by images of boatloads of ethnic Rohingya refugees from Myanmar being pushed out to open sea off the Thailand coast to fend for themselves with little food or water.
The plight of the Muslim Rohingya boat people from Myanmar’s northern Rakhine State galvanized international attention, and highlighted a refugee crisis that seemingly has become part of the region’s geopolitical make-up.
According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), Myanmar is the largest source of refugees in Southeast Asia; globally, it ranked 13th behind Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia at end-2008.
In what is described by the UN and specialists as one of the world’s most intractable refugee situations, people have been fleeing Myanmar for more than a quarter of a century.
Forced labour by the military, the forced relocation of villages, enforced disappearances, rape and other forms of sexual violence, torture, arbitrary detentions, and discrimination against ethnic minorities are all cited as concerns in Myanmar by the UN and international rights groups.
Even with one of the “world’s most intractable refugee situations” in which many ethnic groups have been at the sharp end of government action, the New Zealand public was not roused to insist that the government increase the refugee quota (New Zealand, in fact, took some of the ‘Burmese’ refugees between 2004 and 2010 as part of its quota).
But something must be different now. Social media and the political commentariat are almost unanimous that New Zealand should do something – and do it now!
See, for example, Bryce Edwards’ NBR column “Political Roundup: NZ is part of the refugee problem” for a collation of the outspoken criticism of John Key’s position on the issue and, importantly, the unprecedented upsurge in social media commentary and activism in response to this particular refugee crisis.
There’s even a Facebook campaign that asks New Zealanders to offer spare rooms for refugees.
Even the television presenter who cleaves most closely and supportively to John Key’s side, Mike Hosking, appears to have changed his tune on the European refugee crisis just in time to prepare the ground for a Key flip-flop.
Here is Hosking in Mike’s Minute giving chapter and verse on the financial costs of taking more refugees: Who will pay? What other government expenditure will be cut?
Yes, it might make us “feel good” but what would we wish to sacrifice for this feel-good moment? Sober stuff for thoughtful reflection no doubt.
Yet all of that cautionary, ‘head over heart’ realism melted away, we are led to assume, with one photo.
As Hosking would have it, “pictures change history” – and apparently sometimes in a usefully timely manner to explain John Key and Mike Hosking’s about-face on the refugee issue.
Here, then, is the first candidate to explain the New Zealand public’s surge in concern for the world’s refugees – photos of a child named Aylan Kurdi who died along with his brother Galip and mother Rihan.
Importantly, that was first reported in the UK on 3 September which is 4 September in New Zealand.
Back in June in the lead-up to World Refugee Day there were also numerous editorials and columns written and NGO activism for the quota of refugees New Zealand has set to be lifted – see Bryce Edwards’ earlier compilation of and commentary on the debate a few months ago.
Yet, in each case John Key and the government held to the line and, significantly, there was no public backlash against him or his government over this – but now there is.
So why the seemingly unstoppable momentum from media and the public this time around the track on this issue?
I think it goes something like this.
First, the global number of world refugees is increasing. A series of famines, disasters, unstable countries and the like have led to huge populations of homeless and stateless people comprising unprecedented numbers. As the UNHCR introduces the current state of refugees in its UNHCR Global Trends 2014 document:
The year 2014 has seen continuing dramatic growth in mass displacement from wars and conflict, once again reaching levels unprecedented in recent history. one year ago, UNHCR announced that worldwide forced displacement numbers had reached 51.2 million, a level not previously seen in the post-World War II era. Twelve months later, this figure has grown to a staggering 59.5 million,(3) roughly equalling the population of Italy or the united Kingdom. persecution, conflict, generalized violence, and human rights violations have formed a ‘nation of the displaced’ that, if they were a country, would make up the 24th largest in the world.
It is not just the scale of global forced displacement that is disconcerting but also its rapid acceleration in recent years. For most of the past decade, displacement figures ranged between 38 million and 43 million persons annually. Since 2011, however, when levels stood at 42.5 million, these numbers have grown to the current 59.5 million – a 40 per cent increase within a span of just three years.
And which countries were responsible for this rapid growth? The document provides a neat summary of the facts and figures in its first few pages – and it contains the answer to this question:
More than half (53%) of all refugees worldwide came from just three countries: the Syrian Arab Republic (3.88 million), Afghanistan (2.59 million), and Somalia (1.11 million).
The war in the Syrian Arab Republic, entering into its fourth year in 2014, was a major cause for the global increase. With at least 7.6 million Syrians estimated to be displaced within their country at year end, global forced displacement levels were heavily impacted by this one country. Globally, one in every five displaced persons worldwide was Syrian. The country also became the world’s largest source country of refugees during 2014, overtaking Afghanistan, which had held this position for more than 30 years. The escalating crisis in the Syrian Arab Republic resulted in Turkey becoming the world’s largest refugee-hosting country, a ranking that had been occupied by Pakistan for more than a decade.
One of the ironies of this situation in Syria is that it was, itself, a leading host country of refugees as this World Bank interactive table allows you to see. It had a peak refugee population of 1,955,236 in 2007 and it was still at 1,501,442 in 2010, at the start of the current crisis.
By 2014 the number of refugees in the Syrian Arab Republic had reduced dramatically to a still very sizeable 517,255 people.
The rapid rise in refugees in the last few years, then, is largely a consequence of the Syrian crisis.
Second, in order to explain the current wave of concern it is obviously vital to note that this refugee crisis involves Europe.
New Zealand is still Eurocentric in so far as our media turns its attention to global issues (though, most often, the main media news bias is the Anglo world of the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and, to a lesser extent, Canada). International news, especially concerning what are actually widespread and more or less continual global issues and crises, is largely the news of the western hemisphere and its interests.
The importance of the European setting in inspiring New Zealand media and, therefore, New Zealanders to take notice of the crisis is easily demonstrated by the fact that Syrian refugees have been leaving Syria for several years now. It is only now as they seek refuge in European countries that a ‘crisis’ has occurred.
Mostly, Syrian refugees have been staying in countries bordering Syria. As the UNHCR figures cited above clearly show, Turkey, in particular, has carried a lot of the burden of that flight from Syria.
An interesting fact about the current refugee crisis is that the Syrian refugees heading for Germany have not been travelling from Syria but began their current journeys largely from refugee settlements in Turkey. Here’s a map from a BBC report that makes the trajectory of travel clear:
That is, Syrian refugees have been living for lengthy periods of time outside Syria yet, during that time when the surrounding countries were sheltering hundreds of thousands of refugees the New Zealand media and New Zealanders have paid little attention to their plight.
Presumably, so long as they stayed in the overburdened – and relatively poorer – countries of the immediate region there was deemed to be no ‘refugee crisis’.
But there’s another reason that I think finally helps to explain why, this time, John Key’s government may well have to relent on its dogged line on the refugee quota. It’s also the reason why New Zealanders suddenly feel that they are both inclined and – dare I say it – permitted to show concern over this particular refugee crisis while having remained relatively unmoved by so many others.
The third reason is very much because these are Syrian refugees, in the main.
No-one, I hope, needs reminding that a few short months ago this government paraded its concern for the plight of Syrians and Iraqis confronted with the latest terrorist demons – ISIS, aka the Islamic State.
As has been the case for some time now, those leaders seeking justification for foreign military deployments (i.e., ‘wars’), have noticed the value of emphasising a moral dimension to their decisions. We no longer, apparently, fight foreign wars for geopolitical reasons or for valuable resources or strategic areas of land. Instead, we go to war, it seems, primarily because of our moral outrage and righteousness.
At least that would be the impression you would get for listening to most modern leaders’ justifications for wars.
And certainly that was the case most recently in New Zealand. When John Key sought Parliamentary support for contributing militarily to the fight against ISIS he delivered a quite uncharacteristic “explosive speech“.
The renowned ‘Get Some Guts!’ address to Parliament in February was laced with moral and ethical arguments and injunctions which rose to a strained crescendo. It’s worth having another listen to both the tone and content:
The government, Key claimed, “made the decision to stand up to evil and the barbaric behaviour we’ve seen from ISIL” and that Leader of the Labour Party Andrew Little “knows that these people are barbaric and evil“.
Key pronounced that he and the government would not stand by while “Jordanian pilots are burnt to death, when kids execute soldiers, when people are out there being beheaded“.
All of this moral concern culminated with Key’s famous injunction to “get some guts and join the right side“.
There is no doubt, given the arguments presented in that speech, that “the right side” was, for Key, intended to indicate the right moral side of the issue.
Those ordinary New Zealanders who supported the deployment of the 106 trainers to Iraq no doubt were reassured by Key’s speech that, indeed, the deployment was not only, or even, done for reasons of strategic alliance (to be part of the Five Eyes ‘Club’). Instead, it was being done because it was morally right.
But if you let the moral tiger out of its cage and on to the political stage you need to be careful about where it might range. You need to know that you can control it.
The Syrian refugees are, of course, fleeing what amounts to a mix of a civil war and an external war. And, of course, the “evil” and “barbaric” ISIS spans Iraq and Syria.
So, on top of the rapid increase in the global refugee problem, an increase that in large part has been generated by the Syrian crisis, the New Zealand government has also used a decidedly and deliberately moral argument in favour of deploying New Zealand personnel in that same regional conflagration.
To put it bluntly, the reason why New Zealanders have been so roused (though not universally, of course) by the plight of these particular refugees is, at base, because, just like the old saw of the ‘deserving poor’, these are – by implication from the Key government itself – the ‘deserving refugees’.
These are refugees from ‘barbarism’ and ‘evil’. We know that because our government has just joined the fight on “the right side” to combat this very evil from which they are fleeing.
Like the Belgian refugees who fled the ‘vile Hun’ in World War I, who could possibly question these refugees’ right to be treated with utter sympathy, compassion and practical aid?
And just as the middle and upper class great and the good in Britain opened their houses to displaced Belgians so are New Zealanders today opening their hearts and even their homes to the Syrians.
Human compassion, sadly, is usually a function of the specific conditions present in a particular situation rather than an enduring inner condition of our character. More specifically, moral concern takes courage. In that sense, Key is correct to imply that doing the right thing requires “guts”. But that courage is needed because, all too often, the moral response is also the isolated or lonely response. It goes against the prevailing view of what should be done.
In a world where no-one else seems to think there’s much of a crisis; where our leaders tell us that we’re ‘doing enough’ in response to moral challenges (such as the plight of refugees) and where compassion is routinely derided and belittled as some immature form of ’emotional’ and “feel good” irrationality few will choose to make the truly moral choice.
We are, as humans, fundamentally conformist when it comes to expressions of moral outrage and righteousness. For fear of being called too boring, earnest, idealistic and naive all the way to being labelled as an extremist, a ‘whinger and moaner’ or, heaven forbid, an activist most people will choose to keep their head down – and so routinely let themselves off the moral hook.
Closer to home, we may like to see New Zealand and New Zealanders as inherently compassionate and open to those in need but I’m afraid the plain facts reveal that it is a far more fickle national trait than that. We have been repeatedly told of the plight of any number of refugees over recent years.
The title of this post is ‘Why Syrian refugees?’ The answer, I think, is that this is not about refugees, fundamentally.
No. Instead, it is about having undeniable permission to “feel good” by expressing compassion. After all, these refugees are not the 5.1million Palestinians who are still – after close to 60 years – still living in refugee camps supported by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). They are not the ethnic Rohingya refugees from Myanmar in 2010 who fled by boat from brutal repression.
They are refugees from a war that we have joined – a just and moral war. Hence, their flight can be nothing other than just and moral with none of the ‘complications’ that relieve us of our moral conscience in so many other cases.
And that is why Key misjudged the situation.
He, too, thought it was about ‘refugees’. And so he thought he could run the same lines as always. The ones that always worked.
But it isn’t about refugees – it’s about how the political, social and media forces have (quite accidentally) aligned to release and permit a very human, emotional response to the suffering of others.
I welcome it – of course.
But I don’t believe it heralds a new moral awakening, in New Zealand or elsewhere.
Finally, there’s one little memory that, if he had been paying proper attention to his own words at the time, may well have triggered in John Key a flicker of realisation that he was in danger of being on the wrong side of public opinion on the Syrian refugee issue.
Back in November, 2014 – some few months before his ‘get some guts!’ speech – John Key met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Amongst many other points upon which they reached agreement was this interesting reference to the Syrian refugee problem.
We agreed on the importance of lending our full support to the UN Special Envoy to restart a political process in Syria, which is the only way to resolve this conflict and prevent further violence. We reiterated our strong concern about the plight of the millions of Syrian refugees and the tremendous burden neighbouring countries continue to bear in hosting them.
Almost a year later, of course, one participant in that joint press release followed up such “strong concern” by encouraging her fellow citizens to provide refuge for, potentially, hundreds of thousands of these same refugees who, back in November 2014, were already a “tremendous burden” in Turkey and other countries.
In fact, whether rightly or wrongly, it seems many Syrian refugees have come to see Angela Merkel as something of a saviour:
Monzer, a Syrian who arrived in Germany this week after being fingerprinted elsewhere in Europe, told the Guardian: “Merkel is a respectable woman with humane values and very considerate. She is a mother to Syrians.” Hashem Alsouki, a Syrian applying for asylum in Sweden, said: “We consider Merkel better than any other world ruler. She’s the saviour of Syria’s children from the hell of war and extremism. All Syrians love Merkel and her courage.”
By contrast, John Key’s “strong concern” for these same refugees appears to have ended once the ink dried on the press statement.