Geoffrey Miller: Russia’s war on Ukraine puts more focus on New Zealand’s refugee policy and China’s strategy

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By Geoffrey Miller*

With the Russia Sanctions Act coming into effect, New Zealand has this week focused on providing humanitarian assistance to Ukrainians fleeing war. UN figures showed on Monday that some 2.8 million refugees had left Ukraine since the start of the war.

A general view of the temporary shelter for refugees from Ukraine organized in the sports hall in Krakow, Poland, on March 15.
Photo: Anadolu Agency 2022

On Tuesday, Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta announced that New Zealand would provide an additional NZ$4 million in humanitarian aid to UN agencies, while Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi provided details on a new “special policy for Ukraine 2022” which will grant work visas to Ukrainians who already have family in New Zealand.

Special two-year work visas for Ukrainians require sponsorship from New Zealand-based Ukrainian family members, of whom Faafoi says there are around 1,600.

EU countries currently accept an unlimited number of Ukrainian refugees and offer them residency for three years, without a visa. Outside Europe, Canada announced in early March that it would also accept an unlimited number of Ukrainians for a period of at least two years, whether or not applicants have existing ties to the country.

It is true that New Zealand’s new visa program – which the government says will benefit around 4,000 people – will undoubtedly help some Ukrainians fleeing the war. However, the requirement of existing family ties and sponsorship means that the program is not open to Ukrainians in general and is much more restrictive than offers from the EU and Canada.

In this regard, New Zealand’s new regime shares some similarities with the special visas that New Zealand issued to Afghans fleeing the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan last year. In this case, applicants had to demonstrate that they had assisted the New Zealand Defense Force or another New Zealand government agency in Afghanistan.

From the Labor government’s perspective, one of the benefits of the new Ukrainian scheme is that it effectively places the immediate burden on sponsors – i.e. family members – to look after newcomers , a major plus given the ongoing housing crisis in New Zealand. The Newsroom reported in November that the government had asked officials to personally help find housing options for evacuees from Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, New Zealand’s general refugee quota remains at the annual level of 1,500 that Labor set in 2020. That target – an increase from the previous 1,000 – has not been met. Only 263 refugees arrived in the year 2020-1 and only 463 were resettled in the current year – a shortfall the government attributes to “the global impact of Covid-19”.

The government said on Tuesday it was still awaiting a response from UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, on accepting Ukrainian refugees under the New Zealand quota. But New Zealand may consider lifting its quota and acceptance rates now: Russia’s war on Ukraine will only put further pressure on the number of refugees worldwide, which has already doubled over the past decade to reach some 20.7 million people, according to UNHCR data.

On the broader geopolitical front, New Zealand has more reason to be nervous than most over media reports suggesting China may provide military assistance to Russia.

Media outlets including the Financial Times and CNN this week reported US intelligence allegations that Beijing was willing to provide some level of military assistance to Moscow.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping hold talks in Beijing, China, February 4, 2022.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping hold talks in Beijing, China, February 4.
Photo: AFP/EyePress

Amid the fog of war, such individual reports should be treated with caution – and China has officially dismissed the reports as “disinformation”.

Yet the potential ramifications of China going to war could be enormous.

So far, Beijing has to some extent hedged its bets on the war.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has not publicly condemned Russia for the invasion – and Beijing has also abstained on UN resolutions calling on Moscow to stand down.

But Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi also said the country “deplores” the outbreak of war and expressed interest in playing a mediating role. New Zealand appeared to endorse the idea in early March, when it formally “encouraged China to use its access and influence” with Russia.

Tweets from Chinese officials in New Zealand show China’s cover-up process in action.

Wang Xiaolong, China’s Ambassador to Wellington, tweeted optimistically on March 1: “The first round of talks between Ukraine and Russia is to be welcomed. Although no agreement has yet been reached, as long as they talk, a negotiated settlement has a chance! Peace will have a chance!”

But on Tuesday, Xiao Yewen, China’s vice consul general in Auckland and a prolific tweeter, repeated the lines of a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson who in turn relayed unfounded Russian accusations about controlled biological warfare labs. by the United States in Ukraine. The United States has previously called the lab claims “laughable” and “classic Russian propaganda.”

If US intelligence claims about potential Chinese aid to Putin’s war are confirmed, they could be a measure of the severity of the Russian invasion.

It is now possible that Vladimir Putin will suffer defeat in Ukraine, or at least fail to achieve anything close to Russia’s original goals.

But the high cost of the invasion incurred by Russia in the form of crippling economic retaliation from the West – including both the devastating official sanctions, but also the effective economic boycott of Russia by many companies Western – could trigger something even bigger.

Protests in Russia are still small and are being quickly crushed by Russia’s massive security apparatus. But as the economic costs of war begin to mount, mass unrest and even regime change cannot be entirely ruled out.

Fears that these forces are unleashed – and the precedent they could set – could justify Xi Jinping to start helping Vladimir Putin, whom Xi has previously called his “best friend”.

For New Zealand, any prospect of Chinese intervention in the war should sound alarm bells.

New Zealand’s new Russia Sanctions Act also makes it possible to punish countries that help Russia – a provision that was designed largely with Belarus in mind.

The definition of a “country likely to help Russia” leaves some leeway, but if New Zealand chooses or is forced to sanction China as well, the repercussions are likely to be huge.

The collective Western response to any Chinese involvement in the war would likely be different from actions taken against Russia thus far, given the extent of the West’s economic interdependence with China.

Yet New Zealand is much more exposed to China than many others.

Some 33% of New Zealand’s exports – or about NZ$20 billion a year – are destined for China.

In comparison, the United States sends only 8.8% of its exports to China, while this figure is only 4.7% for the United Kingdom.

Last week, rural lender Rabobank warned that the potential spread of sanctions to China would present a “disastrous situation” for China and its trading partners such as New Zealand.

For New Zealand, the stakes certainly couldn’t be higher.

Vladimir Putin’s war could become Jacinda Ardern’s problem.

* Geoffrey Miller is the Democracy Project’s international analyst and writes on current New Zealand foreign policy and related geopolitical issues. He has lived in Germany and the Middle East and is learning Arabic and Russian.

This article was first published on Democracy Project.

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