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Neighbourhood watch

Sep 28, 2015 Politics

Illustration: Anna Crichton

Why are we ignoring our nearest refugee bully?

The widespread hollering for New Zealand to increase its annual refugee quota has been pleasing. But why are we shouting only now? The number of refugees has always exceeded the number of refuges, and we did not overly concern ourselves about the world’s 59.5 million forcibly displaced individuals in 2014.

The sole change is the spike in refugees reaching Europe (or dying in the attempt). Clearly, even now, New Zealand continues to think of itself as an inexplicably adrift appendage of that continent, rather than as a Pacific centre. Europe is our pilgrimage shrine of civilisation and that’s how this year’s refugees see it too, right? We identify! So their misery matters.

Meanwhile, much closer to home and largely ignored by us, a regime is violating international law and holding hundreds of innocent people in inhumane, unsanitary, dangerous, crowded, rat-infested, sweltering tent-prison conditions, without telling them when they will be released, if at all. Many inmates arrive already disturbed, and children in particular succumb to psychological deterioration once there. Food and toilets are substandard and clothing is woefully inadequate: people share shoes due to sharp gravel. Not even running water is easily accessible.

Worst of all is the atmosphere of intimidation and violence. Inmates are known by number; incarcerated children learn to write their number, not their name, on the pictures they draw. Sexual harassment by guards is commonplace, rapes have taken place, and there is no provision to remove children from abusive situations.

Yes, it’s the Australian detention centre for asylum seekers on Nauru. Since 2012, more than 2230 people from numerous countries including Iran, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan have been sent there with no explanation or prior warning. They have stayed an average of 402 days. Around 630 remain today.

Of those whose status has been decided in Nauru, around 85 per cent (approximately 500) have been “resettled” as refugees on Nauru itself. Even then, violence continues: the local and mostly unprivileged population of 10,000 on the small atoll with a history of colonisation resent the large influx of new residents. Drunk Nauruan men are said to frequently enter refugee housing in the community, shouting for women.

The detention centre alone costs Australia about $A500 million a year — a daily amount of more than $A1.3 million (or $A2000 per inmate). As with all prisoners in privatised facilities, keeping the asylum seekers locked up is lucrative. Subcontractor Wilson Security — part of the Wilson Group, along with Auckland’s love-to-hate favourite Wilson Parking — has been singled out for severe criticism of its irregularities and cover-ups.

An Australian Senate report lays the ultimate responsibility for the appalling situation on the government. If prior form is anything to go by, it will do nothing.

Our best mates are torturing scared people who came to them for help.

New Zealand must shoulder some of the blame. Our recent withdrawal of funding from the corrupt and ill-equipped Nauru justice system — responsible for investigating crime at the centre — makes sense, but stopping there ignores the huge marsupial in the room.

In their backyard shed, our best mates are torturing scared people who came to them for help; are we thinking about having a quiet word with them at the next neighbourhood barbecue?

Currently, we’re whistling with our hands in our pockets, craning our necks to see what’s happening over the horizon in Europe instead.

What we actually need to do is tear down that shed, get those people out and bring them home. And not count them against the refugee quota. (At 13,750, even Australia’s annual refugee quota dwarfs ours.) We should offer to take those asylum seekers who wish to come, and assess them as our own. Canberra will probably refuse. But a Pacific leader could and would put huge pressure on Australia to stop offshoring people altogether.

Outlandish nastiness is not the sole preserve of exotic people in faraway places. It’s harder to recognise it in people you’re used to trusting, and more embarrassing to point out, but we have a duty to do so. The Pacific is not just a sunny place for a holiday and Europe is not the centre of our world.



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