Children waved small photocopied Syrian flags as New Zealand welcomed its first extra intake of refugees from the war-torn nation at Mangere today.

Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse told the group of 82 Syrians and 75 refugees from other countries that diversity was "not just tolerated, it is celebrated" in New Zealand.

Interpreters translated the official speeches into Arabic and three other languages.

Children held up the photocopied flags of their countries as the official party sang welcoming waiata.


Syrian father of three Khaled Suleiman Al Jouja, speaking in Arabic on behalf of the refugees, said Syria used to be a country of safety but was now being destroyed.

"We have left Syria where we have faced persecution and been scared for our lives and where our whole roots have been completely destroyed," he said through an interpreter.

"I thank the United Nations and New Zealand for settling us in a land of safety, a land of kindness and a country where human rights are respected."

At the end of the speeches the whole Syrian group stood and chanted in Arabic saying thanks to the Minister, the interpreters, the cooks, the medical staff and all the other people who had helped them since they arrived.

All the refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Palestine, Iraq, Burma and Colombia then sang a rousing version of Tutira Mai Nga Iwi.

Although 89 Syrians have already come to New Zealand under the country's standard quota of 750 UN-approved refugees each year, the group that arrived at Mangere last week is the first of an extra 600 that the Government has agreed to take in the next two and a half years above the quota.

Most have come via Lebanon, which has about 1 million of the 4.6 million UN-registered Syrian refugees who are still sheltering in neighboring countries.

After six weeks in the Mangere refugee centre, they will be settled in Wellington.

The next two special intakes in March and May will be split roughly equally between Wellington and Dunedin.