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Hester Moore : What do our refugee policies say about us?

What do our refugee policies say about us?

By Hester Moore

Policy can be illumative. Behind the carefully framed language of politicians lie a country’s confidences, fears and insecurities. Above all, however, policy speaks to a nation’s shifting experiences.

In 1987, the Lange government endorsed a policy that New Zealand had unofficially embraced since 1944, and set the country’s annual refugee quota at 750 places. Move on 20 years into a vastly changed world. Wars have begun and ended; international boundaries twisting in a world that looks dramatically different today from that understood by 1987 policymakers. Yet, our quota remains the same. It is a static hallmark, failing to meet the complex human needs of the 21st century.

Why has a succession of New Zealand governments failed to react? Disinterest, complacency, or even worse, ignorance - a camouflaged fear that refugees will cause political harm? Whatever the reasons, it’s time that the question was reexamined.

There are claims that refugees will drain public resources, overcrowd communities, threaten security interests, and influence rapid and uncontrollable societal change. The counter argument is that refugees' dynamism makes them highly valuable and entrepreneurial members of society, and that they are investments in the future of our nation. The debate rises in crescendo, reaches its peak, and sulks back into the shadows of more proximate national agendas.

The issue is unquestionably connected to the evolution of a successful multi-cultural society. This year, the Treasury stated that New Zealand’s economy relies increasingly heavily on a global workforce. Foreign labour introduces skill and entrepreneurship, and plugs empty employment gaps. Providing refugees access to economic resources promotes their inclusion in the lifeblood of our country.The hypocrisy of the argument is such that these are opportunities gladly extended to migrants, but possessively sheltered from refugees. Yes, resettling refugees is not a one-off cost; they require care and attention to remediate the emotional scars of conflict. Second-generation refugee children, however, remain in education longer than members of ethnic majorities. They go on to become exceptional members of society; one of these children, in fact, is now our Prime Minister.

There is no correlation between the rate of unemployed New Zealanders and numbers of incoming refugees. The disaffected among us will continue to populate the hopeless corridors of socioeconomic despair. Violent conflict will continue to upend entire populations. Addressing our domestic shortcomings and meeting our international responsibilities are not mutually exclusive. The test of our maturity as a country is how we balance these two questions in a rational, informed way.

Accepting refugees is not a commercial business. It is a fundamental humanitarian commitment that reaffirms our membership in a global community, as New Zealand's ascension to the Security Council does. Framing the argument on transactional terms distorts its nature. We should not welcome refugees under the justification of economic gain, but as an assertion of our humanity. Too much emphasis is based solely upon the economic benefits of accepting more refugees. But how can New Zealand’s policies benefit refugees, help alleviate suffering, and contribute to a more stable global order? As far-right rhetoric seeps into European politics, we must be careful to avoid the same self-defeating statist conversation.

Last year, the government merged previously distinct quotas for the African and Middle Eastern refugee populations. It included an additional condition that, to be resettled in New Zealand, these people must have an immediate family member already living here. This strips the most vulnerable African refugees of any chance of resettlement. Around three per cent of our quota is currently allocated to African refugees – less than 30 per year (50 per cent of the world’s refugees emanate from African countries). Merging these numbers also fuses important psychosocial and legal vulnerabilities distinct to individual populations, overlooks the idiosyncrasies of conflict, and introduces an unwelcome sense of selectivity to the resettlement system.

This week alone, around 1000 Eritreans will flee their pariah state in the Horn of Africa, many of them escaping unending conscription to national military service. Fanatical militant groups like al-Shabaab and Boko Haram will hammer their doctrinal dogma into the earths of Somalia and Nigeria, splintering entire nations and sending thousands fleeing across borders. Untold numbers of Sudanese and Ethiopians languish in squalid prisons, plucked from their families on the whim of deeply paranoid regimes. Violence is fragmenting the Central African Republic, while South Sudan – the world’s newest country – is caught in a bloody civil war that has escaped most of the world’s attention. All this is playing out in the shadow of the Syrian crisis with its own diaphora of refugees.

In a fluid security environment, New Zealand's humanitarian responsibilities must remain flexible. Our refugee policies can no longer rest upon uncompromising attachment to an archaic 1987 quota. Policy speaks. It is time to consider the content of our national character. Accordingly, the government has committed nearly 26 million dollars towards redesigning the flag. A better way of showing our identity to the global community would be to allow realistic numbers of refugees the opportunity to share in our security and stability.


Hester Moore is 2014 law graduate of Canterbury University, currently interning at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Cairo, Egypt. Hester's views expressed in this article are her personal views.

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