I got an email yesterday from Amnesty International in Australia, entitled ‘Behrouz is finally free’, with a photo of the Amnesty man greeting Behrouz Boochani at Auckland airport. Behrouz Boochani is an Iranian Kurd, an asylum seeker who has been held at one of Australia’s offshore detention centre for years. An award winning journalist, who wrote a book on a smuggled smart phone while stuck on Manus Island (in Papua New Guinea), Behrouz got a visa to visit New Zealand for one month, including an appearance at a literary festival in Christchurch, and is never going back in to Australian detention again.
This was a publicity coup as well as being a personal liberation. Behrouz quickly flew down to Christchurch with Golriz Ghahraman, another Iranian refugee, who is now a Green Party MP, and met the mayor. She gave him a greenstone (poumanu) pendant while the local news media filmed. Rather surprisingly the news item was high up on evening news bulletins, despite the fact that the refugee aspect of the punitive Australian immigration regime has not been covered well here, in comparison to the Australian practice of deporting New Zealand born residents who have committed a crime. Speaking of crimes, arriving in Christchurch was symbolic, given the massacre there by an Australian citizen in March this year. The media speculated that the release of Behrouz would annoy the hard-line far right Australian government, but the story was actually covered on Sky News Australia, the only Australian TV channel carried on the pay TV package here.
Behrouz later appeared on the Al Jazeera channel from his Christchurch hotel room, where he described the Australian detention practices as ‘barbaric’, and claimed that the remaining adult refugees in detention were starving. Many have attempted suicide, and most have developed psychiatric illnesses; some have even been assaulted by the indigenous people running the island prisons, whether on Manus or on Nauru, another island territory that is paid by the Australian regime to hold asylum seekers indefinitely. Nauru has a long history of colonial intervention, and used to have its minerals harvested for Australasian farmers to spread over their fields as fertilizers from planes (this was called Superphosphate).
It would have been a long time since Behrouz was on an airplane, and he barely survived the boat journey from Indonesia to Australian waters over seven years ago. There has been much comment about the USA and the United Kingdom imposing an Australian style ‘points-based’ immigration system. But rather than debate how the points would work for desirable immigrants, it needs to be understood that the Australian system is admired by conservatives for its systematic brutality and punitive aspects. Long before there was Trump and his wall on the Mexican border, a small Australian man named John Howard was winning federal elections for his Liberal Party with a policy of ensuring that asylum seekers would never get on to the Australian mainland. This has always been justified on the basis of not rewarding people smugglers.
In more recent times it has been a man named Peter Dutton as Home Affairs minister in the Liberal-National Governments that has been the face of the detention policy. An ugly man, with even uglier policies, Dutton hails from the state of Queensland, known for its corruption, but which heavily favoured the Liberal Party at the last election, based on an anti-Climate change agenda. Dutton was even the preferred candidate when the far right wing of the Liberal Party tried to depose the sitting Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, last year; but the party preferred Scott Morrison, an evangelical Christian, who is a better retail politician. Nonetheless, the Liberal Party were prepared to lose their seats in the aflfuent areas of Sydney, where the soft ‘liberals’ objected to the harsh treatment of those detained offshore, even though some of their sick children were allowed to leave the islands.
The brutality of this immigration policy is that the detention is indefinite. Dutton does not really want any detainees to leave, even when there are genuine offers to take the refugees off Manus Island and Nauru. New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, has offered to take 150 asylum seekers per year, but this has been rebuffed. The flimsy excuse for this has been the belief among Australians that, once the refugees become New Zealand citizens, they will then be able to travel to Australia eventually. It is of course hard to believe that anybody would still want to go to Australia after detention in ghastly camps on offshore islands, but the Australians refuse to budge on Ardern’s offer.
There used to be something called the ANZAC spirit, which is a sense of co-operation between Australia and New Zealand. ANZAC refers to the army tradition, begun in the First World War, when Australasian troops were flung into a hopeless attack on Turkey at Gallipoli. The senseless slaughter there led to the dawning of an identity separate from the imperial masters in London. But it is now time to admit that this is an historical remnant only, and should really only be seen in a military context. At a government level the Australians simply don’t respect us or our Prime Minister (who is ridiculed on Sky News Australia), whether that be on immigration or climate change in the Pacific.
The most egregious examples of Australian contempt comes with the deportation of petty criminals, who are technically New Zealand citizens. Due to free movement in the past, many working class New Zealand families have re-located to Australia, usually in search of better paying jobs. But if they do not become Australian citizens they also do not get welfare payments, even after paying tax for years. And if they happen to commit a crime, which is often the result of domestic disputes, they will be punished twice: a custodial sentence will result in sequestration in an offshore detention camp, and then eventual deportation. Often these men have not been in New Zealand since their childhood, and have no relatives left here, or any other kind of support, let alone job opportunities. This approved deportation of petty criminals leads to crime here in New Zealand, and is against any residual sense of ANZAC co-operation and goodwill that might remain.
So, to take a recent example, of the serious bush fires raging in Australia, we have sent firefighters to help them. Why should we continue to send our people over to Australia, and potentially sacrifice them in dangerous situations? Even if there is some financial compensation, or some other benefits, such as it being good training, we should no longer just automatically send our people. I don’t recall the Australians reciprocating, but maybe they have in the past. But until they treat New Zealand and all our offers of help with respect, let alone observing international human rights and norms with regard to the treatment of migrants and asylum seekers, we should not be sending help to them.
Yesterday the New Zealand media announced that Behrouz Boochani had been given refugee status in New Zealand. He seems to have been resident in Christchurch since arriving for the literary festival. It was also made apparent that he had become a research fellow at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, and had his own research project to conduct. This is presumably good publicity for that university, but it is one of the worst places in New Zealand for an outsider to try to do something new in terms of research. At least it was for me. Anyway, a good outcome for Behrouz, but not for the others left in Australian detention camps.