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Asylum Seekers and Refugees at the end of the world

Asylum Seekers and Refugees at the end of the world

by Murdoch Stephens
December 9, 2013

New Zealand was one of the last landmasses claimed as a notch in the imperial belt of Great Britain. Spotted by a Dutchman in 1642, it took two hundred years before serious attempts at colonisation took place. These were the years of great explorations, of colonial expansion and a glut of new frontiers. New Zealand’s isolation from Europe was so complete that it was named the antipodes. Drill directly through the earth from most parts of the country and you find yourself in the interior of Spain. This distance is what defines New Zealand and our relationship to the outside world.

Little Asylum in New Zealand

A mass arrival of asylum seekers has never occurred in New Zealand (unless you count the hundreds of boats fleeing poverty in Britain in the 19th century). With no land bridge or easy access by boat, this country gets to define its own immigration and refugee policies. Such isolation would be a godsend for a small xenophobic country. But New Zealand does not define itself by its inwardness. We look at ourselves as the epitome of a racially diverse, progressive 21st century country.

We compare ourselves to Australia in the most positive of lights – we see the hysterics there around asylum seekers and applaud ourselves as we say that we’re better than that; we see the trouble of Aboriginal populations and praise ourselves for our relatively stable relationship with the Maori population. There are no rabid talkback shows in New Zealand that condemn asylum seekers, no government ministers slandering them as illegal’s and no casual references to a sort of violence that would stop the boat.

The reason for the lack of hate in New Zealand may simply be the lack of asylum seekers and refugees. The NZ Herald reported at the start of the year that Australia is aiming to settle five times more refugees than New Zealand per capita in 2013. Five times as many, per capita! The Australian quota was increased in 2012 due to pressure from the wide range of political activists and NGOs that have risen up to challenge the xenophobia there. That said, many of the New Zealand NGOs that I have spoken to see the politicisation of asylum seekers in Australia as something New Zealand must avoid.

In New Zealand no strong political challenge to increase our quota has taken place. We continue to labour under the idea that we are the doyen of progressive politics, when the fact is that we are well into the bottom half of refugees per capita in the OECD.

Australia, like Scotland, has less choice over who attempts to enter their country. The issues for political action elsewhere are trying to enforce the UN Convention on the Status of Refugees and other UN agreements that require protection. That is, the struggle elsewhere is to let those who come stay.

In New Zealand, with increasingly strict pre-screening of airline passengers, the number of asylum seekers has dropped from about 1000 per year to 300 per year. We accept, at most, one-third of these. The nations that these refugees come from exclude those who are most likely to seek asylum: the vast majority of Afghans, Syrians, and Iraqis will simply not be allowed onto an aeroplane to New Zealand. As such, our asylum seekers tend to come from countries like China and Iran, where the government sees more legitimate reasons for handing out visas to those who aren’t immaculately credentialised.

As strange as it might seem to others working with refugees and migrants, New Zealand simply has very few asylum seekers waiting for recognition in our communities. There are also similarly few undocumented immigrants – around one in 314 people.

This lack of asylum seekers doesn’t stop particular members of our House of Representatives from trying to whip up an uninformed frenzy of anti-refugee/asylum seeker/immigrant sentiment. New Zealand still feeds off a little of the media hysteria around asylum seekers in Australia: whenever there is the possibility that a boat might come to New Zealand it garners a few evenings of news coverage. This coverage was especially the case earlier this year when the government allied itself to the Australian asylum seeker system. We enacted mass detention laws in case of arrivals of 30 or more people and pledged to take 150 asylum seekers from Australia. This deal has been scotched by Tony Abbott, referring to it as making New Zealand a ‘consolation prize’ for asylum seekers shut out of Australia.

Little Quota in New Zealand

As with other countries that have well protected land borders or are distant islands, New Zealand attempts to do its bit for refugees by an annual refugee quota. New Zealand’s quota sees our immigration officials assess refugees offshore and then flies them to Auckland where they spend six weeks in a resettlement centre before moving to one of five regional centres. Our quota was established at 800 places (plus or minus 10%) in 1987, was dropped to 750 places in 1997 and has stayed the same ever since.

The struggle for refugee activists in New Zealand has tended towards improving resources and conditions for those already in New Zealand. The present government recognises little compact between New Zealand and the UN despite angling for a seat on the UN Security Council. Where the UNHCR has been urging the National-led government (our centre-right party) to increase our quota and remove family reunification from the quota numbers, the impossibility of any change given the current financial troubles is the sustained answer. Never mind that at the same time, the government sells itself on economic growth for a forthcoming election.

My campaign has been to double our refugee quota and double the funding allocated to this sector. This demand is affronting to some – it seems to lack moderation. But doubling New Zealand’s refugee quota will not make us a world leader. We’ll be closer to average if we do so. We will still take far fewer people per capita than Australia, which still aims at five times our intake. If New Zealand doubles our quota we will still be taking only one-tenth of those accepted by Sweden and Norway.

In the 26 years since the scheme was established, our population has grown by more than 25%. The stagnation of our refugee quota would be a national embarrassment if the plain facts could cut through the entrenched ideology of New Zealand as a world leader in international humanitarianism.

My job (figuratively speaking) for the last six months has been collating these figures, making the comparisons and talking to the government and opposition parties to try to get them to adopt a policy to increase our quota. I am confident in the compulsion behind the numbers. I am confident that when a centre-left government takes power they will increase the quota.

This sort of lobbying lacks the direct action aspect of GRAMNet, but that is the tyranny of distance in New Zealand. Such a distance is a comfort to some New Zealanders who want to get on with their lives with little challenge from the outside world. One day that distance may make us the ones who struggle to leave, struggle to find asylum, struggle to find some space in which to live.


Murdoch Stephens leads the Doing Our Bit campaigning to double New Zealand’s refugee quota from 750 to 1500 places. Find out more at and follow them on Twitter andon Facebook.

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