Accessibility Skip to Global Navigation Skip to Local Navigation Skip to Content Skip to Search Skip to Site Map Menu

NZ should take more refugees

Thursday 16 November 2017 9:18am

Image of Vicki Spencer 2016The department of politics at the University of Otago celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2017. This is the 11th in a series of reflections on politics over the past 50 years. This month Vicki A. Spencer looks at the refugee crisis and the UN’s 1967 Protocol.

As the Politics Department gears up to celebrate its 50th anniversary by hosting the New Zealand Political Studies Association Conference this month, it is worthwhile reflecting on another anniversary. Fifty years ago the United Nations adopted the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.

Refugees are those fleeing their country of origin due to a well-founded fear of persecution based on their race, religion or nationality, their membership in a particular social group or their political views.

But the original convention only applied to those fleeing persecution from European countries prior to January 1951. It was the landmark 1967 Protocol that made the UN's convention universal.

It is, however, often criticised. It fails to include those fleeing from economic hardship and internally displaced persons. It thus neglects the deprivation many suffer due to government policies, war and famine.

The world is currently experiencing an unprecedented number of displaced persons. The UN Refugee Agency's 2016 estimates were 65.6 million, with 22.5 million refugees among them. The top hosting countries were Turkey, with 2.9 million, followed by Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran and Uganda with 940,000.

But since then we have witnessed the tragic attacks on Myanmar's Rohingya Muslim minority. UNHCR reports 582,000 Rohingya refugees have crossed into Bangladesh since August 25 this year, far outnumbering the headline-grabbing flight of Mediterranean migrants into Europe for all of 2016.

The scale of the international crisis puts into perspective New Zealand's shockingly low annual quota of 750 refugees. Even the additional 600 emergency places over four years for Syrians meant the intake in 2016 was a mere 0.02% of New Zealand's 4.6 million population.

By comparison, in 2015-16, Australia accepted 8284 refugees but also has a humanitarian visa programme for those fleeing conflict, with the total number 17,544. That is 0.07% of Australia's 24.13 million 2016 population. It is no moral compensation for the barbaric treatment of offshore asylum seekers by consecutive Australian governments. But it is far better than the New Zealand record.

The Labour Party is committed to increasing the quota to 1500 over three years, with the Greens to 4000 over six years. As part of the Green-Labour confidence and supply deal, a review of the refugee policy seems set to occur.

But will Winston Peters' anti-immigration stance negatively affect any refugee increase?

Refugees fleeing their homeland to save their own and their family's lives should never be confused with immigrants. In the existing state system, to be stateless with no safe home is the most wretched situation people can find themselves in.

International law ensures refugees cannot be forcibly returned to their country of origin. But their need for proper relocation means they are mostly at the mercy of others' goodwill. Something, realists tell us, we can never rely upon.

Political theorists often appeal to our empathy. Think how you would feel and act if your government threatened your life due to your religion or politics.

Or to our sense of justice. Or our self-interest. If you would want a safety-net in such a situation, it is only fair you contribute toward one for others. And just in case you ever do need one!

But most of us can't begin to imagine what it would be like. The terror; the uncertainty; the lack of basic security and safety; the waiting for months, years; the endless fear is more than we can comprehend.

Rare is the film that doesn't sanitise the horrors of war and persecution to make it palatable for us to watch. And who really believes it will ever happen to them?

The refugee problem not only raises issues for comparative politics, students of international politics and political theorists. It affects domestic politics too.

Refugees come from all walks of life and are often highly skilled. They can contribute significantly to their new home. The recent election has seen the first refugee, Golriz Ghahraman, elected to the New Zealand Parliament. And the Politics Department's retired colleague, Najib Lafraie, and his family are refugees from Afghanistan. His classes were some of our largest.

But refugees often require assistance to deal with their trauma. They need basic provisions, shelter, medical care and employment. They are, at first, a cost to the State.

How can helping others be justified?

From a realist perspective, refugees' need for services creates jobs. With Cadbury's closure and 160 job losses at the University of Otago, Dunedin should campaign for a greater refugee intake. Along with a decentralisation of government jobs, New Zealand First's focus on regional development should demand it.

Grand schemes for international justice are some people's utopia and other's worst nightmare. But our inaction contributes to the suffering of refugees, as do the governments they are fleeing from.

So let's not fool ourselves. The cruelty underpinning Australia's detention policy is just as evident in New Zealand's refugee quota. Both exacerbate the pain when we can do better. And we don't need to wear rose-coloured glasses to know that diminishes us all.

Reproduced with permission from the Otago Daily Times. Read the original article here.

Click here to view Associate Professor Vicki Spencer's staff profile.