A Policy A Day: Refugees and Asylum Seekers

In the lead-up to the election, we are examining a policy a day. We’re exploring a variety of policy areas, explaining the background and analysing some of the policy options, with a mixture of technocracy and values-based approaches. Inevitably, some opinion will make its way in and we make no apology for that – after all, we’re voters too. A list of all the articles is available hereEnjoy!

Today’s post is by Dhanya Herath

The Issue

Refugee, noun:
a person who has been forced to leave their country to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster.

Asylum seeker, noun:
someone who leaves their own country, often for political reasons or because of war, and who travels to another country hoping that the government will protect them and allow them to live there.

In any discussion about refugees, it pays to make a clear distinction between refugees and immigrants. A key difference is motivation: immigrants are driven by their own desire to move countries; refugees are forced to relocate.

If we look at the number of displaced people in general, the number of people forced from their homes is at the highest level on record, at 65.6 million people around the world. That’s equivalent to more than two times the population of Australia being forced out of their homes. Add three times the population of NZ, and we get close to the actual figure and scale of the displacement.

22.5 million of these displaced people fit under the definition of refugees, of whom over half are under 18 years old. 10 million are stateless people, who have been denied a nationality and access to basic human rights. The grey sliver in the pie chart below represents the 189,300 refugees resettled out of the 65.6 million people displaced from their homes in 2016.

Current Policy

Under the National Party, New Zealand currently accepts 750 refugees per year with an additional 300 places available for family reunification. Our current quota of 750 refugees was established in 1987 – and hasn’t changed since, joining perms, mullets, and jazzercise in the list of ‘Things We Really Could Have Left Behind In The 80’s.’

There’s a bit more to this policy, however. As a country, we receive refugees from four different regions: Asia Pacific, Africa, the Middle East and the Americas. Before the National Government came into power in 2009, the split of refugees that we took from Asia Pacific, Africa, and the Middle East was roughly equal. In 2009, we had a change of policy which essentially shifted our focus to the Asia Pacific region, citing “broad security concerns” as the reason.  The end result of these policy changes has meant that refugees from Africa and the Middle East can only enter NZ if they already have family here – an effective ban on any new refugees from that region, and one reflected in the numbers: the average number of people from African countries has dropped down to 5% of our intake over the last five years.

This point may seem like nit-picking – does it matter where a refugee is allowed to enter from? It’s still a life saved, right? Well, perhaps. It does pay to note, however, that the United Nations have recommended that the refugee quota should be focused on resettling the most vulnerable, and have explicitly stated that the most vulnerable people are from the African and Middle Eastern regions – precisely the regions which the 2009 policy changes leave out.

Party Policies

As elections loom ever closer, the parties have brought out a range of policies on refugees and asylum seekers, broadly summarised below.

If your first reaction on seeing this flowchart is to lament that we ever opened our borders, then NZ First is the party for you. NZ First has not expressed support for increasing the refugee quota and has not announced any policies regarding refugees or asylum seekers, which may be a statement in itself.

The National Party is for those who favour raising but not doubling the quota, with their policy to raise the quota to 1000 places in 2018. They are also planning to select a further refugee settlement location and pilot a new community sponsorship category, the details of which have not yet been released.

The parties which do favour doubling the quota differ mainly on the extent and speed of the increase. In the camp of parties which want to double the quota but not right away, we have Labour with a one-liner of a policy: over the next three years, they will increase the quota to double its current value.

The Green Party, United Future, and TOP all favour an immediate doubling of the refugee quota to 2000 places, and support the idea of a community sponsorship scheme for refugees. Having doubled the refugee quota, the Green Party would progressively increase it to 4000 people per year in 2023. In addition, they would begin a community sponsorship scheme which would take in 1000 additional refugees per year and introduce a new humanitarian visa for people displaced by climate change in the Pacific, for a total of 5000 refugees per year.

TOP plans to begin their community sponsorship scheme with 300 of the 2000 quota refugees proposed. While TOP and the United Future Party haven’t explicitly stated a goal of increasing the refugee quota beyond doubling it, both parties have stated that they would dynamically shape the refugee quota to reflect the response from groups who want to be involved in resettling refugees.

Then there are the parties which haven’t made an explicit statement on refugee policy. The Maori Party hasn’t released a policy regarding refugees and asylum seekers, although co-leader Te Ururoa Flavell has said that he would like to see the refugee quota increased, and mentioned that ‘We need to make sure there are proper checks and systems in place so that they can’t just come in and buy land for example.’

While the ACT party website also doesn’t have an explicit policy on refugees, ACT leader David Seymour has stated that the quota should be “pegged to our ability to support refugees” (as well as insisting that refugees should sign up to “kiwi values”). Our ability to support refugees can be measured in a range of ways, the most common being population. As of mid-2016, NZ was taking on 0.3 refugees per 1000 people, a quarter of the number of refugees Australia is taking in per capita.  For the quota to keep in line with population growth in NZ over the years, it would need to be increased to 1500 places. ACT also specified that new arrivals should sign a “statement of commitment to New Zealand values”.

With the election coming up soon, it may be time to decide whether a party’s stance on refugees and asylum seekers will influence your vote. It’s not my place to sway your vote either way, and this piece was supposed to be simply a quick guide to the range of party stances available for you to choose from. But here’s the thing. I’m human, and being human means I’m biased.

I had planned to start this with a disclaimer: I am an immigrant child, of immigrant parents. The disclaimer was supposed to be a peace offering: “Look,” it would say, “I know I have biases, but I hold them lightly. They’re not the reasons I believe what I do.” That would be a lie though. I don’t hold my biases lightly – I couldn’t, just as you couldn’t let go of yours easily. My biases are wrapped around me like a scarf, in the way I make my tea, in the way I slip back into Sinhala when I’m annoyed, in the way I instinctively feel a connection with someone speaking Sinhala on the train. I think it would be the same for the refugees.

So I’m not here to say that we should increase the refugee quota because the people seeking asylum are the same as us. I’m saying that we should change the refugee quota despite the fact that they are different, despite the differences in culture, despite the differences in language, even despite the fact that they may put the milk in before the hot water when making tea. There will be hurdles – many of them, quite likely, and ones which we can’t make light of – which come with refugees adjusting to the new culture and social mores. In the face of all of that, I can’t seem to step away from the fact that every single one of these people were driven to our shores by the same desire that brought my parents here, and the same desire that brought our ancestors here to New Zealand: to build a better life for themselves and their children.  It’s hard for me to judge refugees any differently than I would someone moving from Hamilton to Auckland for a better life – except that the people arriving on our shores as refugees were driven by the fear of war and death. When refugees come to our shores, they’re not seeking a better life – they’re simply seeking to live.

Dhanya Herath is a recent biomedical engineering & speech science masters graduate from the University of Auckland, who is currently working as a newbie software developer. When not failing miserably at being impartial, she likes hiking, human rights, and not being cold. She’s also part of a new voting campaign targeted at youth, Political Hatchlings.

Advertisements