'They’re all human beings'

12:36 pm on 2 September 2015

What is this refugee crisis of which you speak?

The human flood to Europe hit bloody depths over the last week. A truck previously used to transport frozen chicken meat was found abandoned in Austria containing the corpses of 71 people. They had suffocated to death. Among them were four children, the youngest a one-year-old girl.

Two crowded boats meanwhile capsized after departing Libya for Europe. At least 200 drowned with more than 1000 rescued from the water.

Has it got worse?

A lot worse. By the end of 2014, the number of people displaced from their homes worldwide stood at 59.5 million, the highest since World War II, according to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Even before the latest deaths, more than 2500 people had lost their lives attempting to reach Europe this year, the agency says. More than 300,000 have attempted the journey already in 2015, up from 219,000 for all of 2014.

Where are they coming from?

A number of places, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Africa and, especially, Syria. A vicious four-year civil war between the Assad regime and rebels has become even nastier with the proliferation of ISIS. An estimated 11 million people have been forced from their homes and at least 250,000 killed.

What is the route?

The best known approach has been the "Central Mediterranean" route, crossing by sea from North Africa. The newer route, in which people are led overland through treacherous terrain across the western Balkans, is increasingly popular.

The surge in numbers risking their lives to get to Europe has been a windfall for the gangs that arrange the perilous transport. Europol has identified 3000 serious criminals involved in people-smuggling rings.

How has Europe responded?

A mixed bag. Hungary and others are literally building razor-wire fences. Right-wing populist parties are fanning flames of fear. The most embracing EU nation is Germany, where Angela Merkel says they expect to receive 800,000 asylum applications by the end of the year. The chancellor has condemned the "hatred" directed at migrants and called for the EU to share the burden in an overhauled system. In stark contrast to much of the continent, expressions of welcome to refugees have been voiced across Germany from tabloid front pages to banners at football games.

Wait. Are we talking about refugees, migrants or asylum seekers?


What's the difference?

It's complicated, both in terms of international law and rhetorical baggage. Al Jazeera recently announced it would stop using the word migrant in stories about the crisis. Read more here and here and here. They're all human beings, put it that way.

Is everyone Europe-bound?

No. Only those able to afford the people-smuggler fees can even contemplate such an endeavour. More refugees remain in the region, most in makeshift camps. Over two million are in Turkey. More than a million are in Lebanon, swelling that small country's population by about 25 percent and prompting fears of civil unrest.

How about the rich Gulf nations - Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain - how many Syrians have they committed to take?

What about Australia?

A fair few Australians are emigrating but I wouldn't call them refugees.

You know what I mean.

Asylum has become a piping hot political potato in Australia, with tens of thousands of people every year heading there in boats from states such as Myanmar, Iran, Iraq, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan in pursuit of asylum. Governments of the left and right have supported offshore "processing" camps in Papua New Guinea and Nauru. A senate committee report this week deemed conditions in Nauru not "appropriate or safe" for detainees following allegations of rape and abuse at the centre.

The sometimes frenzied attitudes to the wider issue in Australia were reflected in the bizarre, and aborted, "Operation Fortitude" plan for the Australian Border Force and the Melbourne police to patrol streets checking visas.

But New Zealanders can by contrast be proud of their approach?

Hardly. Despite the spectre of boat people being raised politically from time to time, we're in practice spared the problem by our fluke of distance. And while Australia has a refugee quota of 13,750, or about one per 1700 of total population, New Zealand's is just 750 a year, or one per 6000, ranking us about 90th in the world. That hasn't increased since 1987; had it risen in line with the New Zealand population, the intake would be more like 1050.

But if you include refugee family reunification and asylum seekers it's more like 3000 to 4000 a year.

Who told you that?

John Key did.

Right, but he later corrected his error, explaining the figure applied to three years' intake.

Who thinks we should increase the quota?

Labour say increase to 1250, while the Greens, ACT, United Future, New Zealand First and the Maori Party all support a boost to at least 1000. Together, those parties command a majority in parliament.

Opinion pieces and editorials have argued overwhelmingly in favour of an increase, too. Angry opposition to any rise in refugee numbers can be easily found, however, by listening to a few minutes of talkback radio.

What about the campaigners?

A number of groups have been calling for an emergency intake, as well as a doubling the 750 annual intake.

To 1500?

Well done, yes. Doing Our Bit, Amnesty International, Wage Peace and Action Station all support such a move. The doubling could be unveiled in a televised whiz-bang function at Parliament.

Cheap shot.

Sure, but still.

What is the argument against an increase?

The prime minister says that New Zealand offers a thorough service for refugees and that increasing the number could strain the quality of the support. While he and Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse have left the door open for a boost when the quota is reviewed next year, Mr Key has also said: "If we were to ... go up from 750 to 850, or go from 750 to 1000, it's hard to believe that's going to resolve the issue because we're talking about millions of people."

So doubling the number of refugees New Zealand takes won't solve a global refugee crisis afflicting tens of millions?

Incredibly, no it won't. Still, as Amnesty's Grant Bayldon puts it, "If you see a house that's burning down and there are 10 people inside, you don't stand out on the footpath and say: we can only save two, what difference will it make?"

Condense it to 25 words.

Only hard hearts would gainsay UN boss Ban Ki-moon: "This is not only a matter of international law; it's also our duty as human beings."

How about five words?

Please don't sing Tom Petty.

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* This column is part of a weekly series, that is published every Wednesday, by graphic artist Toby Morris and journalist Toby Manhire.