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Immigration Debate May Hijack Islamic Awareness Wk

Wednesday 10 August, 2005

Immigration Debate Threatens to Hijack Islamic Awareness Week

Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand, the Catholic agency for justice, peace and development, has expressed dismay at the tone of the election immigration debate, as refugees and migrants once again become political footballs.

“This is Islamic Awareness Week. Despite this, we have seen political speeches containing references to street-spitting, gay-stoning and Muslim stereotypes. This displays either a stunning ignorance of the efforts that are being made to increase understanding and respect through contact and knowledge, or a deliberate willingness to ignore these efforts,” says Caritas CEO Mike Smith.

The whole Oceania region, including both Australia and New Zealand, takes less than one percent of the world’s refugees. Mr Smith believes most New Zealanders readily accept that we need to play our part in alleviating the suffering of those displaced by war or disaster. Caritas strongly supports continued opportunities for refugee families to reunite.

Mr Smith says every New Zealander considering political party policies should consider what their own feelings would be if separated from their family members by disaster or war. “Would we be able to forget spouses, orphaned grandchildren, dependant parents or siblings, and just get on with the business of learning a new language and finding a job? Many refugees find it impossible to recover from trauma and loss when they know people they love are suffering, and we believe most New Zealanders understand that.”

Caritas is opposed to any future closure of the refugee family category, saying there appeared to be some confusion about refugee policy by the political parties who propose incorporating these people into the United Nations refugee quota. Mr Smith said such a move would effectively reduce New Zealand’s international commitment. “The 750 refugees accepted under the United Nations quota are refugees referred to New Zealand by UNHCR as being those most in need of protection through resettlement to a third country.”

Caritas noted that the existing refugee family ballot is not without its own problems.
“The humanitarian immigration category was scrapped in 2001 with only two weeks notice, leaving many refugee family applications high and dry. It was replaced it with the refugee family quota ballot, widely referred to as the “lottery”.

Mr Smith said Caritas welcomes any policies that increase spending of settlement of refugees, but not at the expense of cutting possibilities for family reunification. Applicants to the refugee family quota pay a fee to be included in the ballot, followed by paying further application and settlement fees for those successful in the ballot, and the New Zealand sponsor meets all transport costs to New Zealand. “It is hard to see where savings would be made by scrapping this category, while we see clearly that suffering would be increased.”

Caritas also opposes the extension of the benefit stand down period from two to four years for migrants to New Zealand. This would not affect UN quota refugees, as they are not covered by the stand down at present. However, Caritas has dealt with cases of migrants experiencing considerable hardship under the existing stand down period, usually resulting from the birth of a child.

“It is unreasonable to expect married migrants working legally in New Zealand not to have children for four years. Leaving those who find themselves in financial hardship in these circumstances either condemns children to poverty, or encourages abortions. Neither option is acceptable to Catholics.”

The Catholic Church is considering issues of cultural diversity in Social Justice Week which takes place from 11-17 September. “We are looking forward to seeing Catholic communities and parishes considering important and urgent issues, including immigration and refugee policies, in the week before the election.” The Social Justice Week topic was chosen, and the date set, in 2004 because of concern about the state of race relations in New Zealand.

Mr Smith said that a welcoming, accepting society is less likely to breed religious or political fundamentalism than a suspicious, finger-pointing one. “If we wish to avoid the possibility of the kind of internal terrorist acts Britain has just experienced, the answers lie in not allowing people to grow up feeling marginalised and alienated.

Catholic social teaching has many clear messages which can help Catholics to form their consciences on issues such as racism, discrimination, and welcoming refugees and migrants. “Our most fundamental principle is that we are members of one human family, each made in the image of God. Our Catholic tradition reminds us to welcome the stranger, because when we do so, we are welcoming Christ.”


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