Grant Bayldon: Refugee crisis requires stronger NZ response

Afghan migrants who live in the Hellenikon refugee and migrant camp of Athens register for asylum. AP photo / Petros Giannakouris
Afghan migrants who live in the Hellenikon refugee and migrant camp of Athens register for asylum. AP photo / Petros Giannakouris

The Government's refugee quota review announcement shows that it is completely out of step - not just with the international need, but also with the views of the majority of New Zealanders.

Had the Government doubled the quota, that would have meant an additional 750 people each year who can live in peace, who can bring up their children in safety, who can re-establish their lives free from danger and fear.

Instead we have a delay of two years, and then an increase of only 250 people.

It's not that the small increase made won't be life-changing for the extra families settled here - of course it will. But the Government has squandered an opportunity to do something that New Zealanders could have been proud of.

If there's one New Zealand national character trait I think most people would recognise, it's that Kiwis believe in fairness. And fairness is something that refugees have not had - anyone who has had to flee their home and country because of war or human rights abuse knows that.

But fairness is also something that our Government is shirking right now on an international scale. Even once this small increase takes effect, New Zealand will remain well behind all the countries we most often compare ourselves to. Australia, Britain, United States, Canada, Ireland - all take many times more than us per capita - and they are by no means leaders. The responsibility for hosting refugees is overwhelmingly - in fact 86 per cent of it - falling on developing countries which happen to be near conflict zones, something they have far less resources to be able to do.

The revised quota will still leave New Zealand languishing at around 90th in the world for per capita refugee intake. That's not a position we would accept in any other field, and we shouldn't when it comes to welcoming people to safety.

What frustrates me the most is that the Government has squandered the best opportunity to do something truly life-saving for refugees that any government over the past 29 years has had. Here's how the government's planets lined up for an increase.

Firstly, and importantly for any democratic government, public sentiment has been firmly behind an increase. The coverage of families fleeing their homes and countries has touched many hearts, and surveys have consistently shown strong public support for an increase. Community groups, mayors, churches, every daily newspaper in the country - all have been part of the chorus of voices calling for a substantial increase.

Secondly - and I struggle to think of another time when this has happened - every other political party, from ACT to NZ First to the Greens and everyone in between, has firmly supported an increase. The political path was clear in a way that it wouldn't have been for any other government. It didn't need to spend any political capital on this one; heck, even the young Nats publically called the Government out on it.

And thirdly, throughout the review period, New Zealand has been working the world stage - both on the Security Council and in its backing of Helen Clark's bid to lead the United Nations - on the basis of being a principled country which punches above its weight internationally.

That position is ringing hollow right now with the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War. Because if we aren't pulling our weight in the most critical areas like refugee resettlement, that international profile starts to look like nothing more than a cynical branding exercise.

So where to from here? Just as the international refugee crisis is unlikely to go away any time soon, neither will the calls for further increases. It's important to remember that the Government's three yearly quota review cycle is entirely self-imposed - there's no reason that it can't be done sooner.

The reality of the global refugee crisis requires an urgent and significant response from the international community. Increasingly other countries are significantly raising their refugee intakes in response to this, leaving New Zealand further out of step. So we are encouraging New Zealanders to call on the Government to let it know that we can do better as a country.

If we truly believe that as humans we should all be able to seek protection in a safe country if we were ever forced to flee our own, then New Zealand needs to play its part in providing this protection. That's what we would wish for ourselves or our loved ones if it were ever in that position. And right now that's what we need to remind our Government of.

Grant Bayldon is executive director at Amnesty International NZ.

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