A refugee is a person who:
“is outside of their country and is unable and or unwilling to return or avail themselves of its protection, on account of a well grounded fear of persecution on reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular group or political opinion” – Article 1A, Paragraph 1 Convention relating to the status of Refugees, 1951
There is a tricky line to be walked between xenophobia and rejecting refugees for practical reasons. Few nations get this right, and New Zealand unfortunately has not been an exception. But it is a line that must be walked in this increasingly volatile world where the failure to resolve conflicts and take steps to address the issue of why refugees exist, is increasingly creating more and more, just as the problem threatens to explode.
In New Zealand, a country whose tolerance of ethnic minorities is well recognized and respected around the world, there has been a generally accepting tolerance of refugees. After World War 2 large numbers of people left European countries to settle overseas. They went to Australia, New Zealand, the United States, United Kingdom – anywhere that came out on the better side of the war. Greeks, Poles, French, Italians, Dutch, Belgians to name just a few nationalities. As colonial powers ceded their colonies, another wave started as fledgling governments collapsed, civil wars erupted. Over time it has settled down somewhat. The refugees that arrive now are the result of regional wars rather than events of global significance.
So, why does a refugee want to come here and how do they do it?
First though we must understand some salient facts. By international treatizes to which New Zealand is a signatory, we have the following (among other)obligations to refugees just as much as our own population:
- All refugees must have access to shelter, food, water and medical care.
- In New Zealand it means that shelter must have road access, be connected to water and electricity services, have sewerage.
- Refugees cannot be sent to a nation where they would be at risk of torture.
Before a refugee reaches New Zealand, they very often have to break the law just to get out. Very often, in order to keep atrocities and other conduct that might invite an international or United Nations response, the authorities of a nation from which people are fleeing will seek to prevent them obtaining proper documentation. It is also possible that the nation to which they are fleeing has no diplomatic representation for political reasons or reasons of security. Because of a lack of knowledge coming from these nations, they are almost certainly not going to know about the United Nations Refugee Convention of 1951 or their rights under it.
They will be traumatized. They might have seen family members hurt or killed in front of them. They might have been forced to commit acts that they did not want to at gun or knife point. They might have lost family members to security forces. Confidence in the authorities will not come naturally.
New Zealand is seen as a nirvana. We are peaceful and law abiding. We enjoy freedoms that are envied the world over. And despite my blastings at National and Labour, we enjoy a governance system that promotes transparent politics. Say what one will about National and Labour, but compared to parties in any one or more countries in the Middle East, they are not a bad bunch. Our human rights, despite their decline under successive governments are pretty good.
If you were fleeing the war in Syria and wanting to get as far away from it all as you could, you cannot get much further than New Zealand.
This does not mean New Zealand has to expend vast resources – and nor do I recommend it try to – on taking large numbers of refugees from around the world. It does not mean, if we integrate them properly that there will necessarily be ghetto like areas as you see in France, Britain, Italy, Spain, Germany and other European countries where no central planning was done for refugees and no serious attempt in foreign policy has been made to address why those people became refugees in the first place.
But the policy that groups like Right Wing Resistance would and do promote, which would be to send all refugees back to where they came from, is not only morally wrong, but legally so. As a signatory to the Convention on the Status of Refugees 1951, New Zealand cannot just boot all refugees out. Nor would it want to as they are employed in jobs that many New Zealand citizens themselves will not do. The cleaning jobs in hospitals and so forth, the service station attendant jobs – who would do those if we kicked out immigrants and refugees? Would you?
And yet, we can put the needs of New Zealand and New Zealanders first, whilst addressing the needs of refugees. How? Some of the measures involve growing a spine as a nation, something we once had, but seem to have lost and others involve accepting the fact that our current quota and how we fill it needs to be reviewed. I do not see any evidence Labour or National are prepared to tackle this.
The major steps I envisage are:
- Forming a working cross party group to look at the issue, whether New Zealand can take more, and how
- Make tackling the refugee issue a foreign policy priority
- Opening refugee centres in each of the four main centres, rather than having a central one at Mangere to better prepare refugees for their local communities
- Embed a police officer specialising in community work in each centre to work with staff in helping refugees understand New Zealand law
- Use the United Nations to sound out interested parties for a potential overhaul fit for the 21st Century of the 1951 Convention
- Organize better screening of refugees to identify at risk individuals
It will cost. But it will cost more to do nothing in the long term, both in New Zealand and abroad. Your choice.