Isaac Davison is a NZ Herald political reporter.

New Zealand refugees tell stories of horror

There are calls for New Zealand's quota to be raised from 750 people a year. Photo / Supplied
There are calls for New Zealand's quota to be raised from 750 people a year. Photo / Supplied

New Zealand refugees have told of the horrors they faced in fleeing their home countries in a bid to encourage the Government to raise the refugee quota.

Churches, NGOs, politicians and refugees speaking at a special hearing held at Parliament today unanimously called for the quota to be raised from 750 people a year.

A panel set up by Amnesty International's New Zealand branch heard several harrowing accounts, including that of Tamil woman Sumathy Vigneswaran, who fled persecution in Sri Lanka eight years ago.

Through a translator, she spoke of being pursued by the military in her homeland, forcing her to leave for Thailand with her husband.

"A lot of the people who had an association to the [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam] were being eliminated," the translator said. "So she had to get out."

Vigneswaran, now aged in her early 40s, was detained in a Thai immigration centre for a year with her two-year-old daughter.

"It is like a prison," the translator said. "Children there ... asked what the sun looked like, because they had never seen it. That's how bad it was."

After being bailed out of the centre with money from her family, she had a wait of five years before being resettled as a refugee in New Zealand.

Now living in Lower Hutt and working in the kitchen of a retirement home, she is "very, very happy".

But many more Tamils were still running from persecution, and a higher quota in New Zealand would give them a greater chance of a new life too, she said.

Amnesty International said the quota should double immediately and then rise automatically at each three-yearly review.

Prime Minister John Key would not comment today on the quota because a review was now taking place.

But he appeared to be more open about an increase, saying the current quota had been in place "for a very long time" and that the Government had been increasing the capacity of refugee resettlement services.

The Government last year confirmed an emergency intake of 600 Syrian refugees over the next three years, on top of the annual quota.

It also has an agreement to take 150 refugees a year from Australian refugee centres, as part of the existing quota, though this offer has not yet been taken up by the Australian Government.

Mr Key is meeting with his Australian counterpart Malcolm Turnbull this weekend, but he said refugee resettlement was unlikely to be a major topic of conversation.

United Future leader Peter Dunne, who sponsored the public hearings at Parliament yesterday, said every refugee family he had met had settled well and made a contribution to this country.

He argued that New Zealand had capacity for many more refugees.

"This is a long, thin country, blessed with space and resources," he told the panel.

"It's a sobering exercise to get a scale map of New Zealand and lay it over Europe. North to south in New Zealand is actually longer than north to south in Europe.

"My point is this - our capacity to carry more is significant. And that should not be overlooked."

- NZ Herald

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