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Dealing with Refugees

September 8, 2015 Leave a comment Go to comments

The big news this week is the Syrian refugee crisis. The New Zealand government has been under intense pressure to accept more refugees and has finally relented and will allow 750 into the country. Most of the opinions I have heard seem to think this is a good idea, but how good is it really?

Before I go any further, for those of you with short attention spans, here is the short version…

The Syrian refugee crisis is a difficult problem to solve and ideally it would be best to somehow end the war which is causing people to leave. But that can’t be done easily so maybe the best interim action is to allow those who are in immediate danger to settle in peaceful countries like New Zealand. But this will displace resources which could be used for New Zealanders who live in poverty, don’t have jobs, etc.

And refugees who have settled here in the past have not necessarily fitted in well and less than half have jobs after 5 years. Some have difficulty adopting to a different culture and interact mainly with other immigrants, possibly leading to slums and social unrest.

Helping refugees doesn’t necessarily mean less for New Zealanders because it’s possible to help both refugees and New Zealanders if the government really wanted to. We also need to be seen to be fulfilling our international responsibilities and New Zealand’s main ally (the US) is partly responsible for many of the problems in the Middle East today.

So… it’s complicated, but the best solution is probably to take a moderate approach by taking a fair number of refugees while working towards a solution for ending the war.

Here’s the long version…

The idea of taking more refugees has broad political support but I’m not sure it is quite so popular amongst the wider population of the country. Many people are deeply suspicious of other cultures, especially those from the Middle East, and the usual arguments about refugees not fitting in, taking jobs, and costing a lot of money to process abound. And quite rightly so, because all those arguments are valid.

But there are counter-arguments against the negatives. For example, greater diversity is usually a good thing because it encourages new ideas and different ways of looking at problems (and just makes life more interesting). Also, the population of New Zealand is often seen as low and increasing that through this process can make a small difference. And we do have responsibilities as a member of the international community to help with settling refugees and this helps improve our reputation.

But maybe most importantly, helping other people is just the right thing to do. Of course this idea does need to be balanced with some common sense, otherwise the positive effects of the help will be outweighed by the negatives of the side-effects (there’s an answer straight from utilitarianism!)

So what is the best solution here?

Well, I have heard three broad approaches to solving the problem. First, accept as many people escaping from wars as possible and re-settle them in peaceful areas of the world; second, try to fix the problem which is causing the crisis in the first place; and third, just nuke any areas of the world which are causing problems (the “final solution” espoused – I hope not seriously – by some people).

I’ll look at these in reverse order…

The idea of nuking any country which is involved in a conflict which the West finds inconvenient is crazy, obviously. As I said, I don’t think anyone is really serious about this (sadly, I’m sure there is a certain type of right-wing crazy who is) so I will just ignore it and move on.

What about fixing the problem which is causing the refugee crisis in the first place? Well, of course this is what we should be aiming for but it’s not quite as easy as that. The American approach to solving the Middle East’s problems has been spectacularly unsuccessful. Of course, many people would say that the US is more interested in solving their own problems of securing access to oil, more than anything else, but that still doesn’t help with a solution.

So while solving the problems causing the crisis is clearly the best long-term solution it isn’t much help here and now. Until the war is ended there should be alternative action taken just to solve the immediate problems.

Can we just accept as many people as possible and allow them to settle here? Well that means what is meant by “as many as possible”. There are so many refugees (16 million by some counts) from this one conflict alone (and remember there are other areas of the world where similar problems exist) that is seems almost impossible to make a big difference. So maybe we have to settle for making a small difference. At least that is better than nothing, and even the modest increase announced by the PM will cost us over $50 million.

Finally, let’s have a look at some comments the people are making about this topic and see how I would respond to them…

First there is this: “their country, their war, their problem”. That is partly true, but only partly. If people were really prepared to stand up against ISIS they could probably be defeated from within. But for various reasons that doesn’t happen. Also, a lot of the problems in the Middle East today have been caused, or at least made worse, by meddling by Western powers, especially the US. But all Western nations need to take some responsibility, so it isn’t just “their problem”. It is ours too.

Here’s another: “we should do more for the people of NZ who struggle first” and many others with similar sentiments. Even the biggest struggle for a New Zealander is less than what people in Syria are facing. How many people in NZ daily face the possibility of being brutally murdered by a band of religious fanatics? Not many. Also, New Zealand can do both. There is enough money to help both the poor in New Zealand and Syrian refugees. All that is missing is the political will to do something about it.

What about this: “Keep strong Mr Key. There are 52 Middle Eastern countries for Moslems to go to that are not at war”. I guess this was made before the PM changed direction and allowed for a greater quota of refugees. It’s a good point though because many of the issue in the Middle East are caused by religion. Can’t countries with that same religion help to clean up the mess it causes?

Here’s the final solution espoused by someone: “Send in the clowns. Or 500,000 ground troops. Or several low yield bombs… make that several dozen!” It’s hard to say if this is serious or not, but military interventions just seems to make things worse anyway.

Then there are the emotional pleas for help, like this: “Just imagine the strain these poor people are feeling! Compassion not hate!” Agreed, but we need to be practical about just how much compassion we can offer.

Finally there is this. Maybe the most powerful statment there: “Thanks… from a Syrian in New Zealand”.

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