New Zealand’s Refugee Report Card (Spoiler: History Won’t Be Kind)

Tracey Barnett

Prime Minister Bill English was roundly criticised last week for mumbling into his sleeve when asked if President Trump’s new Muslim ban was racist. But his response wasn’t far off from the hands-off, it’s-not-our-problem approach he inherited.

Indeed, what was the most notable thing about New Zealand’s response to the greatest refugee crisis since WWII this past year?

We simply shrugged.

History won’t be kind either. Our actions toward refugees on the world stage aren’t the problem. What will define us in years to come was our quiet, unshakable inaction.


What is New Zealand’s stance on Australian abuses of asylum seekers in our region on Nauru and Manus Island? 

Silence, now entering its fourth year.

Australia continues to infect our region with some of the harshest laws against asylum seekers in the Western World. The Guardian exposed extensive sexual abuse, mental illness, endemic suicide attempts, self-harm and child abuse in ‘The Nauru Files, bringing Australia’s offshore imprisonment of families—even children—renewed international condemnation.

Australia’s offshore detention continues to be a handbook on how to construct a prison system designed to engender enough psychological trauma and hopelessness that broken asylum seekers will eventually chose to return to war as a ‘better’ option.

“I’ve never come across refugees this broken,” reported an Australian photojournalist who travelled to Manus Island. Having covered the world photographing some of the world’s most desperate refugees since 1995, Ashley Gilbertson reported in The New York Times, “Yet in all that time, I have not seen the level of cruelty toward these vulnerable people that the Australian government is perpetrating against the refugees on Manus Island.”

New Zealand’s response: We have chosen to say nothing. The New Zealand government has remained notably mute, as some detainees now enter their fourth year of imprisonment.


As a country renowned for allowing asylum seekers to live in the community, are there signs New Zealand will choose to lead the region against offshore detention practices?

None. Yet. The issue of offshore detention gained some press traction here last year when Kiwi offenders living in Australia were abruptly shipped to Christmas Island’s refugee prison. They became known as ‘501s’, after the law trying to eject them permanently from Australia.

When Kiwi offenders saw the treatment and conditions Christmas Island refugees had to withstand, they reported it was far worse than the Australian prison conditions the ‘501s’ had experienced. Some rioted in protest.

Australia continues their efforts to ‘sell’ their refugees to other countries for cash or political concessions. But at least one country has started to push back against the inhumane conditions Australia establishes on their turf. The Papua New Guinea Supreme Court ruled these refugees cannot be held indefinitely. They want their camp closed.

So what did Australia do? They struck an agreement with the Obama administration for 1250 of Australia’s offshore refugees to be transferred to America in exchange for Australia taking some of the United States’ Latin American arrivals. The Obama administration had hoped the deal would help shutter the notorious camps for good.

But under the new Trump administration, the deal is looking precariously unlikely, particularly after the now infamously cantankerous first phone call between the two leaders. The US has now signaled it will not accept refugees from many of the very same countries likely to be represented in the Manus Island in-take. Indeed, the Trump administration is now looking to cut America’s total refugee in-take by more than half.

New Zealand’s response: Again, largely silence. We have been loathe to criticize our best friends, despite Australia’s attempts to try to spread this inhumane practice to other countries in our own region. 

New Zealand has a strong moral reputation as fair players for refugees on the world stage. We are well suited to broker a stop to Australia’s practice of selling refugees to third countries.

Ironically, Australia has now become the human traffickers they so condemn. So far, New Zealand has not chosen to take a leadership role in the region.


Why is a stalled 2013 deal for New Zealand to take 150 of Australia’s refugees problematic?

In 2013, a deal was struck between then Prime Ministers John Key and Julia Gillard. In what is now a familiar modus operandi, Australia offered to pay yet another country to take their unwanted humanitarian responsibilities off their hands. Which country?

New Zealand. At a Queenstown conference, we agreed to take 150 of Australia’s refugees every year (not from the UNHCR, as is usual). It sounded magnanimous—until you read the fine print. The Key government would not add these 150 people to our usual in-take of 750. Instead, we would reduce our already tiny UNHCR quota to just 600 to accommodate Australia every year instead.

But the deal stalled. New Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said he didn’t want New Zealand to become a ‘consolation prize’. The agreement has remained inactive, ever since.

New Zealand’s response: When Australia began shopping these refugees to other countries in response to the Papua New Guinean Supreme Court ruling to close the camps, John Key was again asked if the deal was still on the table. It was. 


Should New Zealand take Australia’s refugees, especially if it will empty the camps on Nauru and Manus Island?

Helping to end the cruelty of indefinite offshore detention is a worthy humanitarian goal. But to do so without publicly condemning Australia’s practices may be mistaken as endorsement. If every country in the world only took refugees from their political friends, the entire UNHCR system would be seriously undermined.

Instead, New Zealand could lead the call to abolish selling refugees to third nations in our region. How? Start by amending the Queenstown deal to a one-time in-take on top of our small annual quota, agreeing only if Australia permanently closes its offshore detention.


After nearly thirty-years, should we celebrate the Key government’s annual refugee quota increase?

Maybe the answer lies in how you view New Zealand’s ranking – in 2015, we were the 96th worst country in the world for hosting refugees and asylum seekers per capita. If you measure by our GDP, then New Zealand drops to 117thplace. Every Kiwi administration for the last thirty years ignored lifting New Zealand’s tiny quota of 750, confident they would not get any political fallout from a small refugee constituency.

This year, after a concerted advocacy push to ‘Double The Quota’, the call was widely endorsed by major newspapers, faith groups, political parties and public opinion. The prospect of raising our game after three long decades finally looked promising. After all, other countries with our population size, like Ireland and Finland, were now taking 4,000 and 8,000 refugees, largely in reaction to the needs of Syrians alone.

New Zealand’s response: Sensing that public opinion was calling for finally doing more after a three-decade wait, the government did react with an increase—of 250 people.  It was the smallest possible number they could have chosen while still getting the political credit for having ‘raised the quota’ after nearly thirty years.


As the siege of Aleppo captured headlines last December, Kiwis again asked how to help. There is an answer that points back to our shores too. Though review of our annual quota won’t happen again for another three years, we can initiate an emergency in-take now.

With new, expanded facilities at Mangere Resettlement Centre opened last year, New Zealand has the capacity to take more refugees.

As close political neighbours to Australia, we are a logical choice to take the lead and speak out for humane, moral refugee policy in our region.

History has the ability to look back with the 20-20 acuity that today’s politics obscure. New Zealand’s inaction and concerted silence is likely to go down in history books someday as complicity.




Tracey Barnett is a columnist, commentator and founder of WagePeaceNZ, an initiative to keep Kiwis up to date on refugee issues at home and abroad.

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Tracey Barnett
About the author

Tracey Barnett

Columnist & Commentator
Tracey Barnett has been a contributing columnist and commentator for The New Zealand Herald, The Sunday Star Times, TVNZ and TV3, among others. She is the author of The Quiet War on Asylum, a concise introduction to asylum issues in New Zealand and Australia. She is also the creator of the asylum awareness campaign, We Are Better Than That and most recently, WagePeaceNZ, an initiative to increase the refugee quota and raise awareness about refugee issues in New Zealand.