We can do something right now - refugee crisis

There are ninety towns in New Zealand with a population between 5,000 and 20,000. If each of those towns took ten refugees, and our larger cities took 100 each, we’d triple our quota to nearly 3000 without any going to Auckland, Christchurch or Wellington.

New Zealand would be a proud example of practical, no-nonsense compassion. 


This week, 11,000 people in Iceland offered to house a refugee in response to a Facebook campaign. The country is only obliged to accept 50. A couple spent millions buying a boat to rescue families drowning in the Mediterrean. A Turkish couple spent their wedding day feeding 4000 Syrian refugees.

We could make a difference too.

Imagine putting your children in tiny boats, pulling them through razor wire, leaving home without enough food and water because the alternative is even worse. 

If your sons are the wrong religion they will be executed. Your daughter faces a future as a sex slave. If your brother is gay he will be thrown to his death from the roof of a building.

We cannot turn our backs on the image of Alan Kurdi, the little Syrian boy, face down on the beach, innocent and dead.

But while most people secretly thank God it is not happening to our families, they also worry about whether refugees will integrate into their town, or whether bringing more in will make New Zealand more unsafe. People are not racist because they worry about these issues. Concern for your own security is natural and understandable. So if we are going to do our bit, people need reassurance that we're being practical about their fears and the real risks.

One source of reassurance is that surveillance of jihadist groups with contact to New Zealand has been increased. Anyone, whether a new migrant or a refugee coming to New Zealand, will be checked thoroughly.

The screening process needs to be tough. Many didn’t like the increased powers of surveillance introduced last year. I accept them as the price we pay to reassure New Zealanders that their safety is important. As long as we also increase surveillance of our spies and as long as surveillance is conducted lawfully, then increased security screening is part of the price we pay for opening our door to more refugees. 

New Zealanders also need reassurance that resources and support exist to help families to integrate. We have excellent refugee programmes, run out of Immigration New Zealand, with the help of Red Cross. They have a lower profile than the arrival of refugees would have but those services have a track record that should increase confidence.

I believe that as employers and neighbours see how well integration works, the contribution of new arrivals to our national culture makes the priority worthwhile even from a 'what's in it for us' perspective.

We have to state where the extra money will come from. Faced with an extraordinary humanitarian crisis I would be happy to see work on new roads and trains slowed down, or debt repayment slowed a little. Compared to those budgets the costs involved in re-settlement are trivial. The transport or debt spend would be delayed by a few hours to fund the entire resettlement process. I can spend one more day in a traffic jam as a contribution to reducing suffering. Can't you?

If people were being killed outside our house because of their religion or their race, we would open the door and rush to help. We would expect the police to intervene and social services to provide support. The refugee crisis is far away, but it's also much worse. We can make a difference.

The other thing people say is ‘why don’t we do more to fix the problems in Iraq or Syria or Libya rather than give people asylum here?’ We do need to do our bit to fix the source of the problem. But Syria won't be fixed for twenty years.  

Last year I said New Zealand should have joined an international intervention in Syria after Assad bombed civilians with chemical weapons. We have a responsibility to protect innocent civilians  no matter what country they live in. Therefore there should have been an international response to Assad and his horrific crimes. But there wasn't. We can and should do our bit. Sending 143 military personnel to help protect people from ISIS in Iraq helps. But the families on the border now can’t wait.  

New Zealand at its best has always had a hard head and a soft heart when in comes to injustice in the world. We can act  compassionately when we are also hard-headed about the costs and risks. People need to be reassured that we’re being practical in managing the risks, and then we can do our bit.