Film crews can get exemptions to enter New Zealand, so why not the families and supporters of terror victims, David Williams asks.

OPINION: If the public needs a sign last year’s terrorist attack has slipped off the Government’s radar, this is it.

A sentencing date has been set for the Christchurch mass-murderer, yet the arms of government are so twisted they can’t seem to offer a hand of support to the victims’ families.

The August 24 date was confirmed this morning by High Court Justice Cameron Mander. His minute says the Ministry of Justice has been working with Immigration New Zealand (INZ) to ascertain if “identified victims and support persons”, who are overseas but not New Zealand residents or citizens can get an exemption to enter the country.

“However, INZ has been unable to confirm whether the ‘limited exemptions’ process can be made available to overseas victims and their families.”

This is a failure. There is no good reason for not being able to make this decision before a date was set. Leaving it this late might mean some families won’t get to New Zealand.

Already, victims are worried that might be the case.

Temel Atacocugu, who was shot at Masjid An-Nur, told Stuff he hoped the Government would help arrange special permission for his brother’s travel. “I feel safer with them around me.’’ Also talking to Stuff, Singapore-based Dr Hamimah Tuyan, whose husband Zekeriya Tuyan died nearly seven weeks after being shot at the same mosque, said she feared that she, and others, might be stranded overseas and able to attend the hearing only via teleconference.

It can’t be convincingly argued this is simply a government department’s failure, either, because any decent minister should have stepped in to fix this. (Comment has been sought from Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway.)

What’s more surprising is it’s not that hard. If the Government’s willing to hand out exemptions to the cast and crew of the film Avatar, how easy is it to sign a piece of paper allowing the families and supporters of the victims of a terrorist attack, many of whom are still suffering, physically and mentally, to come in, too?

“If there’s anything we can do then we should do it.” – Mustafa Farouk

There’s surprise and disappointment from within the Muslim community and an advocate for the victims.

Mustafa Farouk, president of the Federation of Islamic Associations, says the overseas families of the victims should be treated the same as returning New Zealanders, including the need for testing and quarantine.

“I would definitely expect that Immigration should try to accommodate these individuals so that they can have closure in their lives.”

He’s not aware of any offer for their flights and accommodation to be picked up by taxpayers. The issue of the Christchurch terrorist attack should be taken seriously and dealt with sympathetically, he says.

“If there’s anything we can do then we should do it,” he says. “The Government has done well so far, in accommodating a lot of the needs for some of these families, they should take it to the finish.”

Raf Manji is an independent adviser to the Christchurch Foundation, who helped decide how millions of donated dollars would be distributed to attack victims. He says many of the victims will welcome a hearing date that’s sooner rather than later, but he’s surprised at the Government’s inaction on a border exemption.

“You would have thought it would be fairly easy to make a decision given they’ve made decisions for things like film crews,” he says. “It’s good the sentencing date’s been set, and I think the Government needs to be clear about what kind of help it’s going to offer to the victims to get them to the sentencing.

“They’ve had plenty of time to consider what that decision might look like.”

Does this decision sit with the ministers of immigration or justice, or should the Prime Minister step in? “Ultimately it’s a decision for the Minister of Immigration,” Manji says. “But really the issue is probably bigger than that – so somebody has to make the decision.”

Rhetoric versus reality

For all the rhetoric about the responsibility of society to overcome violent extremism and hate-filled racism, and the international signals through the Christchurch Call, this Government has an inherent obligation to support the victims of this crime.

Right now, it hasn’t done that. And it has had months to get it right.

The shooter pleaded guilty on March 26 – the day the national lockdown started. And while Covid-19’s spread has worsened overseas, the border restrictions on non-residents haven’t changed.

To announce a sentencing date without having exemptions already in place is thoughtless and callous.

The border is important, of course, and all people from overseas should be quarantined and tested. But this country has a special responsibility to bring as many family and supporters of the terror victims here on the public purse.

Why? Because “they are us”. It’s the least a decent country can do, in the face of last year’s hate-filled horror.

In her address to the nation on March 15 last year, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern called it one of New Zealand’s darkest days. She said many victims were refugees or migrants, but New Zealand is their home. “They are us.”

Later that day, she said this country was a target because we “represent diversity, kindness, compassion”.

“A home for those who share our values. Refuge for those who need it. And those values will not and cannot be shaken by this attack.”

It’s worth remembering that the very weekend the global pandemic started to bite in this country was the anniversary of this attack. The remembrance service scheduled to take place in Christchurch was cancelled because of Covid-19, just 12 short months after the horrific shooting that sparked an outpouring of public grief and a Royal Commission.

The world’s attention was on New Zealand – you could see that by the sheer number of overseas journalists lining Christchurch’s streets, especially the film crews beaming live from the floral tributes that covered the grass verge along a whole city block.

And in the weeks and months to come, the reaction by the public and the Government was lauded, the Prime Minister’s performance held up as flawless. It’s hard to say how any of that initial empathy and support – this uniting rhetoric – relates to this episode of neglect.

A government must be judged by its actions, not its rhetoric.

Was it a government priority to get the families of victims to New Zealand for the sentencing? It doesn’t appear so. The inability of Immigration New Zealand to arrange exemptions calls into question many of the public statements made, and the values espoused, last year.

The Government might quickly make a decision, but it’s arguable the damage is already done. To announce a sentencing date without having exemptions already in place is thoughtless and callous.

Taking quarantine into account, there’s little over a month for the victims’ families and supporters to get to New Zealand. On the face of it, this Government of kindness isn’t adequately supporting the victims of arguably this nation’s greatest criminal act.

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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