Politics and policies reflect values: Border Force Act 2015 and the Immigration Amendment Bill (NZ)

World Refugee Day in June acknowledges the courage, resilience and contributions of refugees. On this day, I acknowledge those caught in geopolitical situations that aren’t of their own making. I acknowledge those who risk life and limb for a better life. I acknowledge those who create new lives despite horror, profound loss and hardship. I acknowledge those who fight for a better world. I mourn for the loss of life, the loss of potential, the loss of innocence, the loss of family, the loss of dignity, hope, freedom. I burn fiercely with rage for those who dehumanise, destroy, lay waste to, ignore, collude and contribute to the reason people flee. For all those who have survived, I salute your courageous hearts and spirits, your resilience in the face of unspeakable atrocity. 

The many celebrations, performances, speeches representing individual and community acts of welcome in both New Zealand and Australia, disguise the increasing brutality and punitiveness of policies in both countries. Policy refers to “a course or principle of action adopted or proposed by a government, party, business or individual” (Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary). Policy not only references content, it points to the kinds of values and beliefs held in a society. Consider the passing of the second reading of the Immigration Amendment Bill by the New Zealand Parliament which will allow the imprisonment of asylum seekers arriving boat, following in Australia’s footsteps of penalising maritime arrivals. Consider the persecution of refugees who arrive by sea, the removal to offshore facilities of babies and children, the payment of “people smugglers” to “turn back the boats” in Australia. For health professionals the secrecy provisions in Section 42 of the Australian Border Force Act 2015 threaten jail for up to two years for professionals who disclose information about the conditions in immigration Detention Centres. These policies are often cited as grounds for moral superiority by New Zealand, but Australia has a larger refugee quota per capita than New Zealand does, which is more often being seen as “a heartless country and a bad global citizen” (see Dr Bryce Edwards excellent summation).

So what “we” are to do with these contradictory aspects of celebration and deterrence that are present in World Refugee Day? RISE: Refugees, Survivors and Ex-Detainees is the first and only refugee and asylum seeker welfare and advocacy organisation in Australia, entirely governed by refugees, asylum seekers, and ex-detainees. RISE have made a powerful statement for World Refugee Week:

The world has forcibly displaced over 57 million people, the highest number since World War II. Most of the displaced refugees are hosted by non-signatory refugee countries, yet most people who celebrate Refugee week are signatories of the refugee convention. There has been no coordinated effort to create more places for resettlement nor other long-term humanitarian solutions for refugees other than lucrative “border security” that feeds the military industrial and detention industrial complex at the expense of our lives. Presently, most refugee signatory countries are trying to block borders and decrease refugee intake, so what is left for us to celebrate here? The death and torture of refugees? Thus far, we have not witnessed safe passage for asylum seekers and refugees across borders.

Questioning the performance aspects of the many activities organised for this week and especially today, they state:

Basically we are remembered once a year as entertainers, visible once a year but voiceless and too incompetent to provide solutions to address our own community’s needs for the rest of the year.

UNHCR’s new annual Global Trends report shows a massive increase in the number of people forced to flee their homes. 59.5 million people were forcibly displaced at the end of 2014 compared to 51.2 million a year earlier and 37.5 million a decade ago. Over half the world’s refugees are children. How can those of us who are disturbed by the scale of displacement and trauma influence governments to influence policy? Murdoch Stevens’ work is a great example. He set up Doing Our Bit in New Zealand and has spearheaded a campaign since 2013 supported by the New Zealand Greens, World Vision, Amnesty International and the New Zealand Race Relations Commissioner Susan DeVoy asking for the New Zealand Refugee Quota to be doubled (you can sign a petition at Action Station). On Wednesday 17th June a private members bill was launched by Denise Roche of the Green Party to increase the refugee quota from 750 to 1000 places.

Tracey Barnett a journalist has responded to the backlash from calls to increase the quota in New Zealand by developing a series of one minute videos to counter misconceptions about refugees : Can New Zealand Get a Refugee Boat Arrival?Define a refugee, an asylum seeker and an economic migrant?Are boat arrivals really jumping the UN queue? :

As families risk their lives at sea rather than die in the war that has engulfed them, New Zealand has quietly just shrugged. It’s not our crisis. It’s so far away. We’re missing the boat entirely. We are every bit a part of the problem. New Zealand has very quietly closed the door to refugees from long-term neglect.

In Australia, The Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP) released a new Refugee and Asylum Seeker Health Policy and Position Statement which outlines the deleterious health impacts of detention and sets out the RACP’s Policy relating to Refugee and Asylum Seeker health. The Position Statement outlines four key aspects influencing health for people seeking asylum in Australia and New Zealand: an end to immigration detention, good access to health services in the community, rigorous health assessments, and promotion of long-term health in the community. There is also a video. The Australian College of Midwives, The Australian College of Mental Health Nurses and The Australian College of Nurses, Australia’s key professional nursing and midwifery bodies have expressed serious concern about the secrecy provisions in the Australian Border Force Act 2015, arguing that the threat of imprisonment for nurses or midwives that disclose any protected information acquired while working in immigration detention centres, places them at odds with obligations under the Australian Codes of Professional Conduct and Codes of Ethics:

This law actively prohibits nurses and midwives from fulfilling their duty under their respective Code of Professional Conduct and Code of Ethics which set the minimum standards for practice a nurse or midwife is expected to uphold. Under their respective Codes of Professional Conduct both nurses and midwives are required, where they have made a report of unlawful or otherwise unacceptable conduct to their employers and that report fails to produce an appropriate response from the employers, to take the matter to an appropriate external authority. However, restrictions imposed by the Australian Border Force Act prohibit nurses and midwives from doing so.


The nursing and midwifery bodies endorsing this statement are of the strong view that the Australian Border Force Act 2015 requires urgent amendments. These amendments must ensure that all health professionals and all contractors can advocate freely for best practice health care and against conditions or practices that are harmful to detainees’ health or that otherwise violate their human rights.
As organisations representing Australia’s nurses and midwives, we consider it inconceivable that the Government should seek to place us at odds with our obligations under the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency when delivering health care to people in immigration detention. The Australian Border Force Act requires immediate amendment so nurses and midwives working in immigration detention centres can comply with their professional requirements.”

These examples highlight how activists, professionals and citizens can advocate and influence policy and politics. We can influence politics meaning discussions of how resources are allocated and we can influence policy meaning the distribution of resources. Furthermore, we can engage in politics in the context of how conflict is expressed in the public sphere with regard to values (Mason, Leavitt, Chaffee, 2014). Teanau Tuiono (Ngāpuhi, Ngāi Takoto, Atiu) advocates for Māori values of manaakitanga and whanaungatanga and a respect of Indigenous Peoples guide the criteria of who can stay. It would do us all well to remember which values are embedded in the actions of our political leaders and policy makers and whether these values reflect our own. As Rachel Smalley asks, what is more frightening?

There is nothing frightening about a refugee, nothing at all.  But there is everything to fear about an ignorant and xenophobic society which increasingly shuts the door on humanity

Leunig July 1 2015: 40 current and former workers at Australia’s detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island challenge Tony Abbott and Peter Dutton to prosecute them under new secrecy laws for speaking out over human rights abuses in this open letter.