Questioning of Behrouz Boochani decision by “pro-refugee” Judith Collins disappoints campaigner

By Geoffrey Miller

Prominent refugee advocate Murdoch Stephens says he is disappointed by Judith Collins’ reaction to Immigration New Zealand’s decision to grant refugee status to Kurdish-Iranian writer Behrouz Boochani.

Judith Collins told media last month that “there’s a lot of concern in New Zealand about what they see as queue jumping and so I’m putting in quite a few questions today…to clarify whether there was any preference given to him over all the other United Nations certified refugees.”

But in a wide-ranging interview with the Democracy Project podcast, Murdoch Stephens said that he was disappointed by the comments.

“[Judith Collins] has been fairly pro-refugee in the past. She was the first person in the National Party to come out against Key’s reluctance to increase the quota in 2015.”

Murdoch Stephens says he has little sympathy for the calls by Collins to examine whether Boochani’s case involved “queue jumping”, or for National’s immigration spokesperson Stuart Smith’s claim that he was “deeply suspicious” of the process that led to Behrouz Boochani being granted an initial visa to visit New Zealand in 2019.

“It’s a suspicion that actively seeks to not know what the asylum seeker law is, and if they did look into that, which would be very easy for them, then these accusations would evaporate.

“It feels like they see asylum seekers as an illegitimate category and that they see the refugee quota as the legitimate category. We saw this in Australia, where quota refugees were framed as the queue that exists, the good way to come here, and asylum seekers were demonised for arriving without permission ahead of time.

“To me it’s quite clear that [Behrouz Boochani] qualifies not least because of his treatment in Iran, but even more recently the six years of arbitrary detention on Manus Island and Papua New Guinea would qualify him as well.”

Murdoch Stephens says an arrangement that would have seen Behrouz Boochani being granted refugee status in the United States was far from a done deal.

“Each of those people who had to be welcomed had to go through individual vetting themselves and Behrouz Boochani hadn’t been vetted before he got to New Zealand, he hadn’t been individually accepted. And even if he had been, the restrictions on Iranians in particular, but also other Muslims, going to the United States at the moment, I would be highly suspicious of that taking place.”

“Doing Our Bit”

Murdoch Stephens started a campaign in 2013 to double New Zealand’s UNHCR refugee quota from 750 to 1500 places – a number that was ultimately accepted by the Labour-NZ First coalition government in 2018.

The campaign, called “Doing Our Bit”, made heavy use of social media and community events to put pressure on both National- and Labour-led governments to implement the 1500 place target.

After that goal was reached in 2018, the “Doing Our Bit” campaign was wound up. In a final post on on the campaign’s Facebook page, Stephens wrote that “the campaign relied on honesty and transparency and that requires we stick to the ask. This was never about starting an NGO or an organisation or a movement – it was a campaign, and campaigns come to an end when they’re won. We won and Doing Our Bit is coming to an end.”

Stephens told the Democracy Project podcast that he did not regret winding up the successful pressure group after the 1500 place target had been met.

“When you begin to start an organisation with the aim of having a particular goal, quite quickly you realise that you need the organisation to endure to achieve that goal. Sometimes you’ll get the substitution of means for ends, where the existence of the organisation ends up becoming the primary goal and then the goal of the actual social change recedes into the distance.

“I would be worried if Doing Our Bit did become an organisation that it would end up becoming focused on earning whatever money we would have to do to pay a wage.”

Impact of the March 15 mosque attacks

Murdoch Stephens says he is open to the idea of the March 15 mosque attacks being a turning point for the treatment of Muslims in New Zealand.

“To get things done you require crisis – like the climate crisis. Covid-19 might allow us to finally put more money into health. This is politics, you use these opportunities regardless of where they come from.

“I think there has been some change. That phrase “Mosque attacks”, you can invoke that in a way to counter some of the Islamophobia. I think it might even be a turning point. But we also forget these things so easily, particularly when new challenges, when new crises come on board.”

Despite this, Stephens says there is a risk of overreach in New Zealand’s reaction to the attacks.

“I’m reminded of the two sides of orientalism from Edward Said, that compulsion to either romanticise or villainize. I don’t think we need to need a make a special case or romanticise Muslims in New Zealand. I think the real challenge is to see Muslims not as some special, persecuted group who are heroes, or angels, or misunderstood. I think we just need to see them as ordinary people.”

“If we’re all wearing headscarves – what about all the other religious groups in the country? We don’t need to fetishize Islam or Muslims. In fact, that makes people feel objectified in that way that Said described in Orientalism.”

Wishlist for Labour

Murdoch Stephens says that he is “still breathing a sigh of relief” about the Labour-led coalition coming to power after nine years of a National-led government.

“We are still in the first term of a very awkward coalition government. There have been shortcomings…while Kiwibuild has produced very few houses, I certainly want far stronger approaches, but you have to bring New Zealand along with you on this.

“I think [Jacinda Ardern] has done very well in securing a New Zealand that believes in her, so maybe next term. Does that make me an apologist? I don’t know.”

The refugee advocate sees some room for some bolder policies in a second term, should a Labour-led government be re-elected.

“I do focus on refugee policy, but I think there are things for all New Zealanders that would help them as well – a massive state house building programme, state houses.

“The wealth tax which the Greens proposed seems to have been polling very well with people. I think the thing I was most disappointed about was [Jacinda] Ardern saying there wouldn’t be a capital gains tax in her time as Prime Minister…there seems to be an appetite, at least among some people, for a wealth tax.”

On increasing refugee numbers to 5,000 as proposed by the Greens

Murdoch Stephens says that he is wary about pushing too hard, too soon on further increases to the refugee quota, which is still modest compared with Australia and other Western countries on a per capita basis.

“I’m a little conservative about this. I want it to succeed. Just bringing in people isn’t enough….I think we have to need to make sure that those new five places [refugee settlement centres] are working really well and that we have that capacity there….then I think we could increase the quota again.”

But Stephens believes that the Green Party’s election manifesto target of 5000 refugee places is ultimately feasible, with the scale behind a considerably higher number also having other useful advantages.

“I think if the resources are there, alongside some of this other infrastructure spending, I think it is reasonable. That would have us doing slightly more than Australia, but far less than Germany, Sweden, some of the European places that accepted a lot of asylum seekers during 2015 and continue to. I do think it’s realistic, there are economies of scale where resettling more people allows us to specialise, allows doctors in different communities to be specialists in refugee health, it allows translators to work full-time rather in this piecemeal way.”

New Zealand’s role in the world

Looking at the long-term direction of New Zealand’s foreign policy and in particular the contribution that the country could make to resolving the international conflicts that lead to refugee flows, Murdoch Stephens said that Operation Burnham episode had shown up shortcomings to a military-driven approach that placed a heavy focus on peacekeeping efforts.

“A lot of our peacekeeping or orientation towards peace has come through the military in New Zealand. We are in a place where obviously there needs to be a reformation of the NZ military – what has come out in Operation Burnham has undermined civil society’s trust in the military.”

But Stephens believes there are opportunities for New Zealand to bring a fresh approach to resolving international conflicts by drawing on Maori culture.

“What’s special about NZ that would allow us to say something new, rather than just being a small, liberal-democratic colony at the end of the world? For me, the exciting thing in this what a kaupapa Maori approach could be in peacekeeping. I saw really interesting stories out of Bamiyan where the Provincial Reconstruction Team was based, and seeing a lot of connection between the Hazara Afghan people and Maori there and some sort of trust developing between indigenous communities.

“In my experience in the Middle East and North Africa, that legacy of colonialism makes people incredibly sceptical of Western intervention, so I think a kaupapa Maori approach and a funding of regional initiatives, kind of like the African peacekeeping force would be a far better way – to me that’s exciting, to have New Zealand putting that forward, I think it could be a really good way to do it.

“I think a lot of the liberal Pakeha who vote for Labour and the Greens are attracted to these notions of what makes New Zealand unique and they understand that it’s not really Pakeha New Zealanders’ view of the world, it’s Maori and indigenous and a decolonizing view of the world that makes, that could make New Zealand unique.”

Listen to the full Democracy Project podcast with Murdoch Stephens here

This article was originally published on the Democracy Project.

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