“We have not done enough': Calls for NZ to take in 10,000 Syrian refugees.
Q + A
ALI AKIL, JAMES SHAW, ANDREW LITTLE
Interviewed by MICHAEL PARKIN
MICHAEL I’m joined now by Ali Akil, a spokesperson for Syrian Solidarity and himself a former refugee who arrived here 15 years ago. And for the opposition solution to the refugee crisis, we’ll be asking Green Party co-leader James Shaw, and in Wellington, Labour leader Andrew Little. Welcome, gentlemen. Mr Akil, I wanted to start with you first of all. When you saw that image of the boy on the beach, what did you think?
ALI To be honest, while that’s horrifying, we’ve been watching much more horrific images over the past four years. We’ve been seeing people— children, little children, drown in blood rather than water and amputated and, you know, the rest of it. So in terms of how horrific it was, it wasn’t actually the top. Why did it go viral and not anything else? I will never be able to explain.
MICHAEL What do you make – obviously, having seen that image and those that you mentioned that are so much worse – do you make of the government seeming reluctant so far to up the refugee quota or make an emergency intake?
ALI To be honest, I feel quite embarrassed to speak to my Syrian, you know, friends and relatives as a Kiwi. I feel as a country we’ve not done enough at all. Over the past two years, the government promised to get about 100 refugees from Syria, and we only managed to get a little bit over 80. It’s just quite embarrassing.
MICHAEL Andrew Little, when you hear that, does that reinforce your thinking around this issue?
ANDREWYeah, it does. I mean, I think you’re absolutely right. This crisis is not new, but it has kind of reached a new level. Millions of people now are crossing the border out of Syria into other countries and are people in desperate straits, you know, fearful for their security. So we have to do something. The world has to act. But we have to do our part as well. I don’t understand the reluctance to act.
MICHAEL What is it that you and the Green Party—? Because it is really the first time we’ve seen you two gentlemen on a, sort of, joint mission together. What is it you’re proposing here?
ANDREW Well, I’m going to seek the Parliament’s permission to introduce a bill that would provide for an emergency intake of 750 over the next year. James will explain what the Green Party bill does. The two are complementary. But it reflects the nature of the crisis, the magnitude of it, and the fact that we have to do something now and be seen to do our bit as a good global citizen.
MICHAEL How did it come to pass? Who picked up the phone to who here?
ANDREWWell, I mean, the opposition parties have had a reasonable degree of coordination and cooperation over the last few months, so we are talking to each other. We all happened to be the only parties at a small business summit on Friday. The other parties declined to attend. So Winston Peters was there. The Green Party was there. We managed to exchange the fact that we were planning on doing it. We heard what the Green Party was doing. So that’s the level of communication that’s going on between the main opposition parties.
MICHAEL So, James, run us through, I guess, your part of this and how, as a combination, this programme would be paid for, because sometimes this does centre around cost when you expand these quota numbers.
JAMESSure. Well, this is the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II, and the government isn’t doing anything about it. So what we have done is we’ve had a bill in the ballot since last June to increase the quota to at least 1000. And what’s changed in the last week or so is that these images have come out and changed public opinion. So we’re hoping to get our bill through, which increases the quota on a more permanent basis. Andrew’s bill gives us an emergency, one-off thing to deal with the immediate situation, and our bill will complement that.
MICHAEL And how do you pay for it?
JAMESWell, it’s a matter of reallocating funds. So, we spent $11 million on a Saudi businessman, because he was annoyed with us. We spent about the same amount of money on an apartment in New York. This is far in excess of the amount of money on an annual basis that dealing with an additional 750 or 1000 refugees would cost the country.
MICHAEL Is it enough?
ALI Just an extra 250 I wouldn’t say is enough at all. I would hope, actually, for a bold statement. I mean, look at Turkey. You know, they’ve hosted more than two million Syrians over the last four years. Germany is now prepared to host 800,000. And I think we can do a lot more than just, you know, 1000.
MICHAEL What would be enough? What do you think is appropriate for New Zealand?
ALI As a one-off, for the scale of the crisis, maybe 10,000 will be, you know, a, sort of, bold enough statement. Any less than that, you know… It’s always good to do a little bit more than what we’re doing. But it’s good to make a bold statement. The other thing is we really only have three options – and the world as well, the whole international community – they can either provide Syrians with enough arms, precisely anti-aeroplanes missiles, and they can actually do the job and stop the massacres and all of that and stop the refugee influx—
MICHAEL Andrew, 10,000 – how does that sound?
ANDREW Yeah, we’ve got to do what we’re geared up to doing. We’ve got the Mangere Refugee Centre, and there’s other places where we welcome refugees and go through the process of getting the resettlement programmes underway. The advice I’ve had from NGOs who were in the field is that, you know, 750 over the next year will put a strain on us, but we can do it. Anything more than that is going to be very very difficult to do. So we should do what is within our means to do it, even if it’s hard to do it, but, you know, we can’t do the impossible. We’ve just got to do what we can.
MICHAEL James, the Government’s indicated it’s going to block these bills, so they are going nowhere. Where does that leave you?
JAMES Well, I mean, the Government is playing politics with this, which absolutely staggers me. I mean, their commitment, really, seems to be to do the absolute minimum possible.
MICHAEL And so if Key comes out tomorrow after Cabinet meeting and says, ‘We’re making an emergency intake,’ what number is high enough to get your blessing?
JAMES Well, I mean, I don’t know what the number’s going to be—
MICHAEL What would it be for you to support it, though? What would you like the look of?
JAMES Oh, well, I mean, we would propose an immediate 750 would be a good start. But, I mean, Ali’s right – it’s nothing even coming close to the scale of the crisis that we’re up against.
MICHAEL And I think we all acknowledge that it is a symbolic, more than anything, offer to resettle people. Is John Key not right, though, in terms of you can’t take 750 people tomorrow; you have to get the advice; you have to find out whether you’re capable of doing that; you have to find out whether UNHCR is even going to let you take specifically Syrians? I mean, why not give him the few weeks he needs to sort this out, given he seems to be indicating he is going to come up with a number?
JAMES Well, I mean, you know, you’ve got to take the amount of time that it takes to sort those things out. But the thing is 750 is an absolute drop in the bucket. I mean, we took 700 Polish refugees after World War II, when our population was about a million people. So we’ve got the capacity. And you’ve got mayors up and down the country who are looking at what they can do in their cities in terms of emergency accommodation. You know, this is not a hard problem for us to solve. We can do so much more than we currently are doing.
MICHAEL Andrew, Ali mentioned military support. Why aren’t we talking about not just being the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff – about getting into Syria, about doing something that the people on the ground there are facing? Why is there not a military component to this?
ANDREW Yeah, I mean, the situation now is so complex, because, of course, you know, it’s not Syria on its own; it’s what’s happening in Iraq, it’s what’s happening in other parts of the Middle East. What I think we’re seeing is the start of the process, however long it might take – and it’ll probably be years – of redrawing the boundaries, the boundaries that were imposed, you know, 100 or so years ago. Right now, we’ve got a humanitarian crisis, people fleeing for their lives. That’s what we have to focus on and deal with. I don’t think there is an immediate military solution that’s going to mean that those people can go back to their homes any time soon. So let’s deal with what we can. The geopolitical issue is complex, it’s long-term, and I’m not sure we’re going to be able to answer it in this neck of the woods down here.
MICHAELWhat about donating more money? I mean, John Key has said that about $15 million over since 2011. Is there scope to put in more taxpayer funds into these programmes, and if so, how much would you gentlemen spend?
ANDREW Yeah, I think, obviously, we have our international aid contribution, and when it comes to refugee camps in other parts of the world, yes, we should contribute to those.
MICHAEL How much more, do you think?
ANDREW Well, I don’t have an idea about the scale of the need and requirement.
JAMESIf you look at it, I mean, aid in another area where New Zealand does not pull its weight. I mean, we make a very very small aid commitment. I know a lot of people think it’s huge, but it’s really tiny. And given what we do spend our money on – you know, somebody said yesterday, ‘We spend $27 million on a new flag – or maybe not a new flag.’ It’s not hard. It’s just a matter of prioritisation. And when you consider how desperate you would have to be to put your children on to a rickety boat and send it out into the open seas, because the open sea seems like a safer prospect than what lies behind you on land – if you consider that sort of situation, it seems extraordinary that New Zealand – which is a wealthy country and has a history of leadership on the international stage, currently has a seat on the United Nations Security Council – that we’re not even doing the bare minimum. I mean, I find it extraordinary.
MICHAEL Just quickly, Ali, do you worry that people are going to forget again, that this image is going to drop out of people’s minds and the issue will fall away?
ALIAbsolutely. I mean, the issue’s been going on for four years. We’ve had much more than enough time to prepare ourselves to do whatever. And one more thing that I would really like to mention is we also need to establish humanitarian pathways for people to come in. I mean, I know that today under the current law, if I have relatives in Syria who would like to come, I can’t, and even if they— I can’t make them come here. I can’t sponsor anybody, unless I had nobody here at all – no wife, no parents, no siblings, nobody at all. And so that’s another way that I think we can help at least Kiwis to get their own people here.
MICHAEL Thank you, gentlemen. We will have to leave it there, unfortunately. But I do appreciate your time.
ALI Thank you.
JAMES Thanks, Michael.