A Spotlight on Refugees

by Emanuel Stoakes

As part of a regular  look at social justice issues in Aotearoa New Zealand, today we are focusing on the issue of refugees.

Refugees are victims of circumstances beyond their control; they differ from economic migrants in that they have been forced from their place of dwelling because of war, natural disaster or persecution.

They are often traumatised and desperate. Social workers in Aotearoa New Zealand assist refugees to rebuild their lives, using strategies that are aimed at increasing their hope, self-esteem and creative potential to begin again in a new setting.

There are many inspirational examples of people and organisations in Aotearoa New Zealand working with refugees to help them develop their life. These include volunteers to the Red Cross, organisations like Caritas, the Salvation Army and social workers themselves.

Aotearoa New Zealand has an honourable history of assisting the needy and vulnerable when they faced persecution. In the 1930s, the country took in more than a thousand Jews seeking refuge from Nazi Germany; in 1944 we also took in hundreds of Polish refugees, most of whom were children.

Since that time, Aotearoa New Zealand has assisted Hungarians fleeing the Soviet Union’s crushing of an attempted revolution in 1956; Czechoslovaks fleeing the Soviet crackdown in their country in 1967; victims of Idi Amin’s regime in Uganda; Jews fleeing the Soviet Union; Burmese refugees escaping civil war and Syrians seeking asylum since 2014.

Meagre quota

Yet this record is tainted by the fact that the country still has one of the most meagre refugee quotas of any developed nation. Until recently, the quota stood at 750 – a figure that had been frozen since the late 80s. The government has pledged to double the number to 1500, but even this is a comparatively low amount.

Compare those figures with Sweden, which has accepted hundreds of thousands of refugees over the past decade. For an even more extreme case, see Lebanon, which has a population of six million and yet is hosting around 1.5 million refugees- a quarter of its population- mostly from neighbouring Syria.

And despite Australia’s much-criticised treatment of refugees at processing centres on islands like Manus, they still take several times more refugees on a per capita basis than Aotearoa New Zealand.

The world is experiencing a refugee crisis, with more people fleeing war and disaster than any time since the second world war. In this context, it is arguable that Aotearoa New Zealand should do more to help.

The Green Party have said that the country should raise its quota further: to 5000 a year, a figure that would bring us closer in line with other developed nations.

Justifications and misconceptions

The moral justification for accepting refugees is rooted in the fact that any person could become one if they were subjected to a catastrophe; for those countries that are signatories to human rights conventions, their position on refugees amounts to a test of their commitment to upholding these principles.

There are many misconceptions about refugees. Some believe that refugees should stay in countries that they had fled to en route to trying to get into Aotearoa New Zealand. However, many states don’t have the same protections for refugees that we have.

As Grant Bayldon of Amnesty New Zealand has explained: “To stay in a country that doesn’t recognise your rights as a refugee means to remain an illegal immigrant indefinitely. You couldn’t legally work, your children couldn’t go to school, and you would remain at risk of arrest, detention and deportation for the rest of your life.”

Another misconception is that refugees can be a drain on the societies to which they move. Evidence points in the other direction; studies show that accepting refugees can have a positive impact on the economy.

“There’s not any credible research that I know of that in the medium and long term that refugees are anything but a hugely profitable investment,” Michael Clemens, a senior fellow at the Washington-based think tank the Centre for Global Development, has observed.

He cites a study by a professor at Texas University that showed that in the United States which showed that refugees often performed better than migrants in adding value to the economy.

Academics in Aotearoa New Zealand have come to the same conclusion. Massey University professor told Stuff that refugees contribute a net economic gain for the country, albeit over the long term.

In the United States, there are a trove of examples of refugees who have become successful entrepreneurs or innovators. These include Jerry Yang of Yahoo and Sergey Brin at Google.

In Aotearoa New Zealand, a number of public figures like former Prime Minister John Key and Member of Parliament Golriz Ghahraman were either the children of refugees or refugees themselves.

ANZASW’s stance 

ANZASW’s commitment to human rights means that the Association strongly supports refugees in Aotearoa New Zealand and believes that the quota should be increased. In particular, we believe that our country should be taking in more refugees fleeing from the appalling crisis in Syria, which has displaced half the country’s population.

Many of those who have fled from death and destruction in Syria are waiting in squalid camps to be resettled by the UN’s refugee agency UNHCR to third countries; the majority of those stuck in this situation have to wait years before they can find a new home.

In the interim children are unable to develop as they should, living in conditions of deprivation and often lacking access to education, a situation that can have life-long consequences for their wellbeing.

By increasing the quota, Aotearoa New Zealand will provide a life-changing opportunity to thousands of people who have had their lives stolen from to begin again.