The Prime Minister has failed to respond to widespread concerns over New Zealand’s inaction on refugees. For more than a year, Key has claimed that now is not the time to increase our annual quota of 750 places because it has been in place for almost 30 years. Now he’s scrambling for a way to keep face while also mollifying the remarkable awakening in public sentiment.
Beyond the immediate need, the most obvious reason for an increase is that our population has grown by 40% since 1987. That means that each New Zealander is now offering less support than they did thirty years ago. Add to this a cut in the quota from 800 to 750 under the Bolger government and we would need to grow our quota by 50% to not be backpedalling. Surely a currency trader would understand the basics of inflation.
With accepted asylum seekers down 75% (including appeals) since a peak around 2001, doubling the quota is a fair and reasonable increase. Fundamentally, however, I’d like to see MBIE (the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment) and the Immigration Minister look at population growth every time they review the quota. We shouldn’t need to be presented with photographs of the results of our inaction to force a change. This should be an administrative matter and outside political parties’ inclinations.
Beyond the total numbers, however, are some moves that are far nastier than Key is willing to admit. The least reported of the policies of the Key government on refugees is the cut in the number of Africans coming into New Zealand. A decade ago, 30% of our new refugees came from Africa. This preference was in line with the United Nations’ focus on refugees who are in the most vulnerable situations – those in Africa and the Middle East.
But when the Key government was elected, restrictions were put in place (see here for details) on refugees being resettled from the African region. Specifically, only people from Africa who already had family in New Zealand would be welcomed. Cynically, this was framed by Foreign Affairs and Trade as an ‘opportunity’. Truthfully? It was a shameful policy excluding many of the most vulnerable refugees. Last year New Zealand only received 3% of our new refugees from the African continent. After five years of this policy, MBIE told the Immigration Minister, Michael Woodhouse, that if they wanted to reach the actual aim for refugees from Africa, he would need to reverse the policy.
What did National do? A recent interview on Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report with Guyon Espiner reveals that instead of following his own department’s advice, a creative solution was found. Woodhouse simply noted that there is no African quota: Africa has been merged with the Middle East so that the drop in refugee numbers can be spread over a broader region and comparisons to past intakes can’t be made. There’s an MBIE briefing from April 7 of this year that I’d like to read on this, but Woodhouse has refused to release it.
The quota places from Africa (and the Middle East, which has also been cut to family-only) have been reallocated to Asia-Pacific and the Americas. Obviously there is desperation for those refugees from Asia-Pacific who had tried to reach Australia by boat. But New Zealand has struggled to find enough refugees in this region, recently having to expand the definition of Asia-Pacific to include Pakistan.
Keeping our quota at 750 is an acceptance of a continuing real decrease in the number of humanitarian places offered by New Zealanders. We’re not doing our bit.
With immigration at record highs, surely we can make space for an increase in our quota. Despite other atrocious asylum policies, Australia is progressively growing its quota over the next four years. By 2019 Australia will accept four times as many refugees per capita as New Zealand. If we doubled ours, they’d still be doubling us.
Are the Australian people really four times more hospitable than us? Two times? I don’t believe that New Zealanders are as closed-hearted as that. It’s time for Key and Woodhouse to do the right thing. If not, we’ll remember them as the leaders who slammed the door on what the UN is calling the humanitarian catastrophe of the century.
Murdoch Stephens started the Doing Our Bit to double New Zealand’s refugee quota in early 2013. He published ‘Pacific Insoluble: contemporary issues in New Zealand’s refugee quota policy’ in New Zealand Sociology in December 2014 and an overview of New Zealand and Australia’s policies in Overland in July. He is writing a PhD on how critical theories have responded to the urgency of climate change by moving between orientations of doubt to those based on emancipatory politics at Massey University (Wellington).