Local Syrian refugees on Jordanian border

Published on October 20th, 2016 | by Rakesh Lal


Trading our morals for money: The death of a compassionate New Zealand

Last week the Treasury department recorded a surplus of 1.8 billion dollars for the year leading up to June. As media discussion turned to how this could be spent, Finance Minister Bill English included the possibility of tax cuts in his list of possible options. Tax cuts would be an exceptionally ineffective way to improve people lives; the modicum of financial benefit tax cuts could produce for New Zealanders can hardly be compared with the benefit that could be created by public investment here or support for those facing hardship internationally.

The most significant crisis in the world to date is the plight of refugees fleeing war, political persecution and economic hardship. Almost all commentators agree New Zealand could welcome much more refugees, but despite numerous calls to do just that the government has made only token efforts. Last year, in response to the millions of refugees flooding out of Syria, the New Zealand government temporarily raised the 750 refugee per year quota by 600, and took a further 150 advanced from the 2016 quota, a total of only 1350. Earlier this year with the situation in Syria getting worse, and increasing refugee displacement, the Government announced a permanent increase in the quota to a thousand refugees per year (150 having already been placed from the previous year). Both changes were shockingly disappointing for many who in 2015 campaigned for an immediate intake of ten thousand. Even those like Amnesty International, who campaigned this year for doubling the quota to 1500, argued that we could already accommodate this many.

The government has argued that it was both too financially costly and there was not enough capacity in the sector to take more refugees. In July, after 5 years of the Syrian crisis and nearly 5 million displaced people, the government’s moderate increase to a thousand refugees was expected to increase costs from $25 to $100 million per annum. If this is true it seems plausible then that the quota could easily be doubled again if not quadrupled from this latest surplus announcement alone. This would still leave more than a billion for investment in much needed infrastructure to support improving the lives of New Zealand’s most disaffected, such as housing and housing infrastructure.

The scale of the world’s refugee crisis is of course larger than Syria alone, as there are still significant refugees from Afghanistan, Somalia, South Sudan and the Congo. All listed as emergency areas for displaced people by the UN Refugee Agency. Notably these are all areas that have been heavily occupied in the past decade by western powers and western private company interests. We are all well aware of the oil interests of the US and Europe in the Middle East that is directly linked to the destabilisation of the region. This is also true of Somalia whose oil reserves were discovers in early 2000’s and South Sudan which is only recently independent and civil war includes struggle over oil fields. Meanwhile, the Congo is one of the richest mining areas in the world for heavy metals and these resources are fundamental to the wealthy lifestyles maintained in the US, Europe and here in New Zealand. The computers and cell phone’s you use to read this article almost certainly contain or have relied upon these raw materials, and the price we pay for them is predicated on the wealth dispossession and conflict in these regions.

As a wealthy country that is isolated from these areas of conflict, we have the benefit of being able to choose the exact number of refugees we take. Unlike poorer countries often neighbouring these areas of conflict, support for refugees can create a cascading problem that is seldom acknowledged by the international community. For example, Lebanon has had little choice but to accept refugees crossing the border with Syria, but have made huge and heroic endeavours at both state and community level to support over a million Syrian refugees. We should then recognise that our intake of refugees not only impacts the immediate lives of those that we welcome in, but indirectly helps ease the pressure on the wider region.

If we are genuinely committed to international solidarity, compassion for displaced people and support for human rights the Government should commit to a further and immediate increase in refugees, not simply because it has discovered an operating surplus in the public sector, but because it is morally deplorable to do so little in light of the scale of the human misery. We must also recognise that our actions contribute to the displacement and disposition of the poorest and most vulnerable globally; through the political support for military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan under our current government leaves us with a responsibility; through our consumptive demands that are fulfilled through extraction of raw materials in these regions under highly questionable conditions, we have a responsibility.

The failure to date of our government should anger all people who are compassionate to the plight of the millions displaced. As socialist we call for radically increasing the refugee intake to demonstrate our international solidarity and acknowledge our responsibility to all people internationally. We reject xenophobic and fiscally conservative views that wrongly argue for moderation in our refugee numbers. Instead we welcome the cultural and social richness that refugees can bring if we support them into this society. Above all we stress the importance of understanding that capitalism and imperialism is the cause of such large scale conflict, and we support a socialist response of investing wealth in improving the lives of the most disposed people.

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