EDITORIAL: Nauru is barely a speck in the ocean. At 21 square kilometres, the island is marginally smaller than Rangitoto in the Hauraki Gulf. And size matters in this case because when politicians descend on tiny Nauru for the Pacific Islands Forum in September, they will find it hard to avoid the island’s notorious detention centre.
World Vision NZ’s national director, Grant Bayldon, made that point when he launched a timely campaign to persuade New Zealand to resettle the 119 children detained on Nauru, and their families. Bayldon appealed directly to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and noted the obvious precedent, which was the resettlement of 133 Tampa refugees under Helen Clark in 2001.
That was a humanitarian act in defiance of the hard-heartedness of Australia under John Howard, who turned away more than 400 refugees who entered Australian waters on the Tampa. Stateless refugees are an easy target for a politician talking tough. Students of political symbolism will note that National leader Simon Bridges recently described Howard as his “absolute hero” for the way he survived in the shark-tank of Australian politics.
If Tampa was to have a sequel for New Zealand, it would surely be Nauru. While Australia is distracted by yet another leadership spill, World Vision calls on “these children and their families to be brought to safety and resettled in New Zealand before Universal Children’s Day on November 20 this year”.
The action would fit Ardern’s brand almost too perfectly. When the Prime Minister returned to work after maternity leave, she gave interviews in which she talked of taking her partner Clarke Gayford and their baby to New York in late September for the United Nations General Assembly meeting, which will be “focused on things like women, children and climate change”.
There will inevitably be grumblings from some on the Right that the trip is a headline-hogging stunt that makes New Zealand look progressive at a global level. Offering to resettle the Nauru children would lend obvious weight to photo opportunities in New York and boost our image as a world leader in human rights issues.
Can this actually happen? There is no doubt that the Pacific Islands Forum will be a highly contentious event, especially for Australian media and politicians. Nauru’s government has banned Australian state broadcaster ABC from entering the country in September, which has been seen as an attack on press freedom on both sides of the ditch.
It has also been pointed out that detention is a good earner for Nauru, which is paid more than A$31 million (NZ$34m) per year by the Australian Government to detain refugees, according to an Amnesty International report released in 2016.
And then there is the politics. Australia’s Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, who could be its next Prime Minister, has repeatedly turned down offers by both the Ardern and the John Key governments to take refugees from Nauru.
There is no reason to think that any increase in humanitarian shaming, even on a world stage, will shift a stubborn government whose eyes are firmly fixed on local polls and a political climate hostile to refugees and immigrants. But to continue to repeat the offers, and to align them with our values of fairness and openness, is not just good politics for Ardern. It is the moral thing to do.
— With assistance by PHILIP MATTHEWS