Refugees in New Zealand

There are two main pathways that refugees or protected persons find their way into New Zealand: 1) asylum seekers may seek protection after arrival in New Zealand (either as refugees or protected persons); 2) refugees or protected persons may also be resettled from offshore through New Zealand's Refugee Quota Programme.[1] Refugees who have been resettled can apply to sponsor relatives to join them (growing to 600 per year from 2021).[2] In 2017/18 a community sponsorship pathway was trialled, extended from 2021.[3][4]

A refugee who is resettled into New Zealand is granted permanent residency and may apply for citizenship. Much of the discussion in recent years has focused on whether the annual UNHCR resettlement quota is adequate, focused on the most vulnerable and on the outcomes of refugees coming through this system.[5] New Zealand is one of the few countries in the world that receive more quota refugees than asylum applications. There has been relatively little focus on the rights of asylum seekers.

History of refugees in New ZealandEdit

Even before the 1951 United Nations Convention was being adopted by member states, New Zealand accepted refugees.

Those granted refugee status prior to the UNHCR Convention were

  • 1100 Germans Jewish refugees during the 1930s
  • 837 Polish refugees, mostly children arrived in 1944
  • 4,500 refugees from Europe between 1949 and 1952

New Zealand acceded to the UNHCR Convention in 1960, and refugee policy is based on the obligations that flow from that, namely to offer protection to refugees. The text is currently set out in the Sixth Schedule of the Immigration Act 1987. The Immigration Act is not a description of policy, but rather a framework for assessing and determining claims made by people in New Zealand seeking refugee status. The 1987 Act formalised an annual resettlement quota of 800 places, which was decreased to 750 places in 1997.[6]

Those granted refugee status post the signing of the UNHCR Convention were:

  • Hungarian refugees following 1956 Hungarian revolution
  • Czechoslovaks from the 1968 Prague uprising
  • Asians fleeing Uganda in the 1970s
  • Chileans fleeing General Pinochet in the 1970s
  • Jews and East Europeans fleeing Soviet Union in the 1970s
  • Those fleeing wars in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in the 1970s and 1980s
  • Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan arrive in the 1990s
  • Burma, Somalia, Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, Sudan and the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s
  • Since 2000, Burundi, Eritrea, Djibouti and Bhutan
  • Colombian refugees since 2008.
  • Syrian refugees from 2014.[7]

In 2009, the incoming National government moved to a focus on refugees in the Asia-Pacific region which substantially decreased the number of refugees coming from both the Middle East and Africa. New Zealand now restricts quota refugees from both the Middle East and African unless (a) they already have family in New Zealand, (b) they are part of an emergency quota outside of the annual intake or (c) refugees from this region are able to register with the UNHCR outside of the Middle East and Africa.[8] These restrictions have led to prominent advocates comparing New Zealand's policies to the "Muslim Ban" of Donald Trump.[9]

After the Mosque attacks in Christchurch in 2019, attention turned to the coalition government's continued restrictions on African and Middle Eastern refugees.[10] Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway described the policy as "the very definition of discrimination" and indicated the policy would be reviewed.[11] Both the Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and the Foreign Minister Winston Peters questioned whether the policy was racist, but also indicated the policy - as well as the broader make-up of the quota - was under review.[12][13]

In the decade 2007-2016 the top three refugee resettlement countries of origin have been Myanmar, Bhutan, and Colombia. In 2019, Myanmar, Colombia and then Syria were the top countries where refugees originated.[14]

In early October 2019, the Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway announced that the Labour-led coalition government would be scrapping the discriminatory requirement that African and Middle Eastern refugee applicants already have relatives who were residing in New Zealand. While the African and Middle Eastern regions had their refugee allocation quota increased from 14% to 15%, the Government would still continues its focus on the Asia-Pacific region, which is allocated 50% on the annual refugee quota. This change followed criticism of the Government's refugee resettlement policy by refugee advocates Guled Mire and Murdoch Stephens, petition from World Vision, and comments from Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon.[15][16][17]

On 16 May 2020, the Green Party's immigration spokesperson Golriz Ghahraman announced that the Government will be doubling the cap on New Zealands' family reunification scheme from 300 to 600 over the next three years under a new NZ$21 million funding boost.[18] For the first time in the programme's history, funding would go towards the programme that would take away some of the burden on sponsoring families.[19]

The refugee quota (resettlement)Edit

Each year, New Zealand accepts 1000 refugees, increasing to 1,500 in July 2020, as part of an agreement with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, whereby their status has been "mandated" or authenticated by the UNHCR. Because New Zealand is inaccessible by refugee coming by boat or a land bridge, New Zealand offers a resettlement programme. Included within this quota are places for women at risk medical/disabled, and emergency protection cases within their quota. In doing so they offer a preferential option for those who are already marginalised and vulnerable, and the most difficult to place. For this New Zealand had gained international respect for its humanitarianism, though in recent years the numbers of medical/disabled and emergency places have been close to zero.[20]

Settlement locationsEdit

Those refugees arriving under the UNHCR quota, arrive in Auckland in groups of about 180, and stay for the first six weeks at the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre. They are offered a programme of residential and employment orientation, and then move off to one of the seven major resettlement areas, Auckland (restricted to family connected cases in 2016), Hamilton, Palmerston North, Wellington, Nelson, Christchurch, Dunedin and, Invercargill.[21] To accommodate the increased refugee quota in 2020 and the pressure in other regions, five more regions – Levin, Masterton, Blenheim, Timaru and Ashburton – have been added as resettlement locations.[22][23]

Asylum seekers who apply for refugee status on shore are equally likely to be held either in prison or the Mangere refugee reception centre.[24] If they are found to be genuine refugees they will be granted residence, then they are technically able to access Social welfare in New Zealand and the same benefits provided by the state as any permanent resident.

Double The Quota campaignEdit

In June 2013 Doing Our Bit, a small Wellington-based charitable trust led by Murdoch Stephens launched the Double The Quota campaign.[25] The campaign had two goals: to double the number of refugees welcomed through the annual resettlement quota from 750 to 1500 and to double the funding for resettlement services. The campaign justified this increase based on population growth since the quota was set at 800 places in 1987, and a sharp decrease in the number of asylum seekers accepted from 2001 onwards. They argued that the quota had not increased for three decades, that Australia welcomed five times as many refugees per capita as New Zealand, and that New Zealand ranked around 90th in the world at hosting refugees per capita.[26]

Prior to the 2014 election only the Green Party and United Future had policies on increasing the quota. The National party had a policy of decreasing the quota to 500 places in 2002[27] but this policy was not continued, nor implemented when they gained power in 2008. At the 2014 election the Labour party indicated they would support raising the quota to 1,000.[28]

In early 2015 Amnesty International joined the call to double the quota.[29] The public awakening to the refugee crisis in August of that year led to doubling the quota becoming a popular argument for how New Zealand should respond, gaining support from mayors,[30] churches,[31] other NGOS, the National party youth wing,[32] and media commentators.[33] Public pressure saw the government agree to admit 600 additional Syrian refugees, with 150 places also set aside from within the quota for Syrians. They also said they would consider increasing the quota at the triennial review due in 2016.[34]

A broad-based campaign ran in the first six months of 2016 to encourage the government to double the quota. While it was ultimately unsuccessful in that goal, the government did set in place an increase of the quota to 1,000 places for July 2018. More importantly, United Future, Labour and the Greens all took on a policy of doubling the quota.[35]

In the lead up to the 2017 election, Doing Our Bit continued the campaign with a nationwide speaking tour securing pledges of Members of Parliament and candidates to double the quota.[36] Among those signing was then deputy leader of the opposition, Jacinda Ardern. When Ardern eventually became Opposition leader and then leader of the coalition government with New Zealand First, she reiterated that the refugee quota would grow to 1,500 places.[37] The Green party also secured a review of the numbers admitted under family reunification for their confidence and supply support. In August 2018, a book by Stephens was released documenting the campaign through publisher Bridget Williams Books.[38]

On 19 September 2018, the Labour coalition government made the announcement that New Zealand will raise the annual refugee quota from 1,000 to 1,500 in July 2020, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had announced. Labour campaigned on increasing the refugee quota to 1,500 over three years, and providing the funding to manage refugee resettlement.[39]

Asylum seekersEdit

New Zealand receives relatively few asylum seekers (the vast majority by air), whose claim is then either approved or declined by the Refugee Status Branch of the Immigration New Zealand, or by the Immigration and Protection Tribunal. There has been a considerable drop in the number of the asylum claims each year beginning in the late 1990s.[40] In 2016, only 387 refugee status applications were received, with 32% found to be genuine.[41] New Zealand is one of a handful of countries that takes the majority of their refugees through a quota system.[42] Assistance that addresses asylum seeker's specific needs as they attempt to integrate into New Zealand is limited.[43]

Asylum seekers by boatEdit

New Zealand has had a long-standing concern about boat arrivals of asylum seekers. New Zealand has been an active participant in the Bali Process to prevent boat arrivals. No mass boat arrival has ever made it to New Zealand, although small numbers of arrive by sea and subsequently claimed asylum.

In 2013 a Migration Amendment Bill was introduced which would allow the government to mandatorily detain refugees who arrive by boat in groups of ten or more. The bill, colloquially referred to as the Mass Arrivals Bill, was passed as the Migration Amendment Act 2014 but only after Peter Dunne insisted the number rise from ten to thirty people.[44]

A number of refugees or reports have claimed that asylum seekers are attempting to travel to New Zealand in recent years. Examples include:

  • Jun 2011: 85 Tamils were detained by Indonesia's maritime police off Sumatra, who were claiming they were travelling to New Zealand. New Zealand Immigration Minister Jonathan Coleman said there was "no concrete evidence" that the Sri Lankan people were actually trying to reach New Zealand. "When they had a look at the boat, there was no evidence that they were truly intending to come here, so I'm sure there is a range of things that the people on that boat are trying to do to leverage their position," Coleman said.[45]
  • Apr 2012: 10 Chinese asylum seekers attempting to travel to NZ by boat in April 2012 who were taken to Darwin after making a distress call"[46] Another source report that they eventually decided not to seek asylum in New Zealand but elected to claim asylum in Australia [47][48]
  • May 2015: the Andika (see below).
  • Nov 2017: attempted to send four boats, carrying 164 asylum seekers, to NZ.[49]
  • Dec 2017: an Australian naval patrol intercepted a boatload of 29 Sri Lankans off the coast of Western Australia. Those on board told Australian authorities they were bound for New Zealand.[50]
  • May 2018: Malaysian police intercepted a tanker with 131 Sri Lankans believed bound for Australia and New Zealand.[51][52][53][54][55]
  • Jan 2019: Australian and Malaysian agencies combined forces to bust the operation, which was preparing to send a boat with 24 Sri Lankans and 10 Indians, including 11 women and seven children [to Australia or New Zealand].[56]
  • Jan 2019: A fishing boat with between 100 and 200 people on board is reportedly on its way to Australia or New Zealand, according to media reports quoting local police in India. The vessel left a port in the southern state of Kerala on 12 January and was never heard from again.[57][58][59][60][61][62][63][64][65]

Refugee advocates have claimed that the John Key and the National government is scare-mongering over asylum seekers in a manner similar to that deployed in Australian politics.[66] There has been at least one boat that might have made it to New Zealand, the Andika. In January 2018, leaked intelligence reports to Australian media suggested Australian authorities reportedly turned around four new boats just before Christmas [2017], and intelligence sources have said Ardern's criticisms of Australia's refugee policy are the likely cause.[67] However former Australian Border Force Commissioner Roman Quaedvlieg, said before the May 2018 attempt from Malaysia there "was only ever one vessel intercepted south of [Papua New Guinea] that was capable of reaching NZ physically and with an experienced crew; this one also looks like it could have."[68]

The AndikaEdit

In May 2015 a ship with passengers including 54 Sri Lankans (Tamils), 10 Bangladeshis, one person from Myanmar (Rohingya) and five additional crew was sailing towards New Zealand in international waters.[69] According to an Amnesty International report the boat had a credible chance of arriving in New Zealand however it was intercepted by Australian authorities outside of Australian jurisdiction.[70] The treatment of these refugees was also documented in the film Stop the Boats - the lie of savings lives at sea.[71]

The boat departed from Indonesia on the 5th of May and was first intercepted by Australian forces on the 17th of May 2015, and again on the 22nd of May when the refugees were removed. They were sent back on two less seaworthy boats, and shipwrecked off Rote Island, Indonesia on 31 May 2015.[70] News about the ship broke on the 1 June 2015 by the Indonesian police[72][73][74]

On the 2nd of June 2015, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key was asked about the situation in the New Zealand media.[75] He said if one boat made it New Zealand "it would open up a pretty easy pathway to replicate"[76] In one interview he would not say which New Zealand authorities first found out about the boat, or whether New Zealand's spy agencies had been involved, saying it was "a while ago, but I can't really go into all the details for some obvious reasons, but yeah, I knew some time ago."[77] In another interview however he said they had been advised "a couple of weeks back" about the seaworthiness of the boat to reach New Zealand and was getting daily updates from ODESC.[78] Labour politicians attacked Key in parliament for scare-mongering denying the possibility of the boat arriving.[79][80]

The Green Party raised the possibility that the New Zealand intelligence agencies had been involved in tracking the boat and if so were “complicit in violating international law, the Refugee Convention and ignoring the UN’s criticism of Australia".[81]

Newspaper editorials strongly criticised the operation and called from PM John Key to distance the government from likely payments made by Australia to the ship to the ships crew to be turned around.[82] This was also raised by Michael Timmins [83] Former Green MP Keith Locke raised the incident "raises the question of whether the Australian navy is under instructions from the New Zealand government to intercept any such boat and send it back to Indonesia."[84]

Ahead of the 2017 general election a number of MPs and activists signed an open-letter calling on the government to bring the passengers of the Andika to New Zealand to have their asylum claims assessed in New Zealand[85]

Detention of asylum seekersEdit

Concern has been raised about the arbitrary detention of asylum seekers in prisons.[86][87]

Australia-New Zealand relations on refugeesEdit

Since Helen Clark welcomed refugees from the Tampa, New Zealand has been seen as a place where Australia might resettle asylum seekers who arrive by boat. This approach was formalised in an agreement between Julia Gillard and John Key in 2013 to allow up to 150 refugees from the Nauru and Manus detention centres to be relocated to New Zealand every year. With the 2013 Australian election of Tony Abbott the deal has remained on the table but has never been taken up by the Australian Liberal Party.[88] While many Australian refugee advocates have argued for New Zealand to bypass the Australian government and offer the deal directly to refugees in detention, the New Zealand government has made it clear that they are only interested in the deal as sanctioned by the Australian government.[89]

Community Organisation Refugee SponsorshipEdit

In New Zealand, a pilot of 25 Community Organisations Refugee Sponsorship (CORS) places was approved as part of the government's response to the 2015 crisis.[3] This pilot has been completed and advocates are pushing for the pathway to be made permanent in the coming years.[90] Prominent media commentator Alison Mau described the extension of the pilot as, politically "2019's most obvious no-brainer."[91] In the 2020 budget, the trial was extended for three years with 50 places available per year and a co-design process set to be launched.[4]

Famous refugees from New ZealandEdit

The following are well known people who have been refugees and who settled in New Zealand:

New Zealand is also home to numerous high-profile second-generation refugees including Sir John Key, investigative journalist Nicky Hager, and blogger David Farrar.[95]


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Further readingEdit