The recent news that up to 8,000 refugees were adrift in the Andaman Sea momentarily highlighted the plight of one of the most vulnerable peoples in the world. Most are Rohingya, a Muslim minority from Myanmar (also known as Burma) fleeing violent persecution by nationalist and Buddhist extremists.
Ordinarily, such issues receive almost no attention in this country – in general kiwis feel far removed from world events and the main media outlets feed us a regular diet of reality TV, weather and sport. But when John Key announced on 2 June that a boat of 65 asylum seekers had been intercepted bound for New Zealand, the issue gained some traction. While the boat was still some way from New Zealand waters – indeed, with Australia still to circumnavigate – we suddenly felt involved. The PM reassured the public in no uncertain terms that “we alerted the systems that we have in the way to work through those processes”. In fact, a mysterious Australian official named Agus appears to have paid the people smugglers to turn back to Indonesia, in two smaller and less seaworthy boats. The NZ Government denies any involvement in this intervention.
To my mind, it is doubtful that a medium-sized motor boat could feasibly skirt the north and east of Australia carrying adequate fuel before successfully crossing the Tasman, or if any smuggling crew would see such a journey as a viable business model. However, the incident has had one valuable outcome. Many kiwis began to debate whether the country can, and should, accept more refugees per year. New Zealand has a yearly refugee intake of 750, accepted in six groups a year with an additional 300 places per year available for family of accepted refugees. This number has remained the same for 28 years, leaving New Zealand the 90th most generous country in terms of refugee intake per capita. This has prompted opposition political parties and commentators to call on the government to increase the yearly intake. John Key has rejected these calls and no change of heart appears imminent. He believes that increasing the intake would jeopardise the intensive “wrap around care” that New Zealand currently gives to the refugees it does take in, although presumably an increased budget would remedy that risk.
One of the more surprising calls for the government to increase the yearly refugee intake came from Seven Sharp presenter Pippa Wetzell. As Political Scientist Bryce Edwards pointed out, this statement provided somewhat of a barometer of public opinion on the issue. The programme’s Facebook page lit up with commentary, and this has been repeated on the pages of other media outlets. A large majority of comments stridently opposed taking in more refugees. The overriding theme is that New Zealand has enough poverty, homelessness and deprivation of its own. How can the government contemplate spending money on those from elsewhere when New Zealanders are struggling? A smaller proportion of the comments highlighted the religious identity of the asylum seekers, claiming that “most refugees are Muslim and don’t integrate well” or that after accepting them “we will soon not be allowed Christmas decorations, carols or crosses on our churches”. Some saw the refugees as the architects of their own fate; “If Pippa loves them so much perhaps she should go and live in the hell hole they have created for themselves”. As Bryce Edwards pointed out, many were also explicitly sexist, referring to Wetzell’s blonde hair, and advising her that she is not in a position to comment on the issue because she is just a “bird on the telly”.
New Zealand has a long history of progressive politics, from women’s suffrage, to comparatively harmonious ethnic relations, advocacy for a nuclear free Pacific, the enactment of marriage equality and more. This is a fact for which I and (I will guess) most kiwis are rightfully proud. So when reading the comments I wondered whether this lack of public compassion stems from a lack of coverage in this country on what these refugees are fleeing. Living in New Zealand it is hard to fully comprehend the horror some ethnic communities face simply because of who they are. Perhaps if the leading media outlets in New Zealand provided more coverage of the deadly persecution the Rohingya face at home – and on their journey – that kiwi tradition of progressiveness and moral leadership might return.
Since 2012, the persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar – particularly in Rakhine State near Bangladesh – has been systematic, coordinated and almost total. These abuses have occurred for decades – 250,000 were expelled from the country in 1978 for example – but have reignited since Myanmar began its recent path of political liberalisation. Following a spontaneous clash between Buddhist Rakhine and Rohingya and other Muslims in June 2012, the latter have faced increasingly coordinated mob violence organized by local political and religious organisations. Simultaneous attacks in numerous areas of Rakhine State in October 2012 saw over 150 people killed and attempts to drive the Rohingya population from the state. Around 140,000 have been displaced, with almost 100,000 fleeing the country. Those remaining in Rakhine are confined to detention camps to which aid workers have been restricted access and periodically expelled, leaving the IDPs near starvation and facing disease and intimidation.
Accompanying this violence has been pervasive vilification and legal discrimination. Central to the persecution of the Rohingya have been claims that they are illegal migrants from Bangladesh (similar claims are made in other areas where Bengalis have migrated since the era of British colonialism). As such, 1.4 million Rohingya are denied full citizenship – along with the rights that go with it – leaving the group stateless, vulnerable to expulsion and lacking any right of return. Legal mechanisms also appear designed to limit the group’s population growth. The Myanmar parliament recently passed a population control bill requiring women to wait for three years between pregnancies. Rights groups have expressed concerns that such laws might be applied selectively against minority groups in Myanmar. These fears appeared justified when Ashin Wirathu, the most extreme and notorious Buddhist nationalist leader, stated that the bill must be passed because one of its main goals was to “stop the Bengalis”.
In attempting to escape this repression, tens of thousands of Rohingya are currently enduring further deprivation and violence. Human Rights Watch estimates that since 2014 an estimated 90,000 Rohingya have fallen into the hands of people smugglers and traffickers who they exploit financially. Many die on the journey. Police have uncovered a series of 140 mass grave sites on a trafficking route along the Thai Malaysia border, complete with human cages and watchtowers. Witness accounts and investigations reveal numerous cases of kidnapping, torture, rape and murder. Given this repression and its consequences, it is therefore unsurprising that several very credible institutions – including the official American institution for memorialising the Holocaust and the International State Crime Initiative at Queen Mary University of London – have labelled the treatment of the Rohingya within Myanmar the ultimate crime against humanity, genocide.
We currently live in an era of violence and displacement on a grand scale. 59.5 million people are currently displaced from their homes by conflict and persecution – this figure has grown by an extraordinary 8 million in the past year. Yet New Zealand takes the same number of refugees as it did in 1987. Focussing on the quality of resettlement rather than increasing the number of lives saved is the luxury of another another era. We are well placed to do more. New Zealand has no land borders and so does not experience the influx of asylum seekers seen by many states. And increasing our official intake will remove the incentive for people to risk the perilous journey by boat. It is also a golden opportunity to demonstrate that New Zealand is a leader befitting our place on the UN Security Council.
Yet more importantly, even a small change in intake will save hundreds of individuals from the persecution discussed above. Around 2,000 mostly Rohingya refugees are thought to remain missing in the Andaman Sea. As a proportion of the almost 60 million people displaced around the world, this number is tiny. But these refugees are in our region. We can’t just watch the tragedy unfold on television and say we have our own problems. We can and should do more to save more lives.