Louise Humpage: Refugees are an invaluable asset

Those tasked with helping new arrivals know their value and want quota doubled, writes Louise Humpage.
Syrian children with the country's flag at the refugee resettlement centre in Mangere. Photo / Simon Collins
Syrian children with the country's flag at the refugee resettlement centre in Mangere. Photo / Simon Collins

Dr Louise Humpage is an Associate Professor in Sociology at the University of Auckland.

Two weeks ago, I attended the launch of the New Zealanders Now photo exhibition. Framed black and white photos of people who had arrived in this country as refugees but have now settled in and want us to recognise that they are now New Zealanders.

There was a quiet dignity in the images and in the former refugees hosting the event, who enthusiastically encouraged us all to eat and to talk, thankful for the opportunity to demonstrate the kind of hospitality many - but not all - received when they arrived here with nothing.

I wish John Key and his Cabinet had been there. It might have encouraged the Government to have been braver with its decision to increase the refugee quota from 750 only to 1000 per year - and not even until 2018.

Yes, the increase is better than nothing, especially for the extra 250 individuals who can now escape persecution in their own country, or more years holed up in a refugee camp.

But this rather miserly increase reflects the Government's dominant view that refugees represent a cost, not an asset.

My experience, in my interaction with refugee organisations, and in my research with refugees, leads me to believe the opposite is the case; they bring many benefits which are rarely recognised.

I belong to the board governing a local refugee organisation and alongside me sit former refugees who contribute to society daily in their occupations as teachers, managers of social service organisations, accountants and small business owners - not to mention the extra hours they put in through the board and other community activities.

The Government tells us that it didn't make a radical increase in the quota because it doesn't want to overwhelm existing refugee services and support. Yet it is exactly those services and supporters that signed and presented a 20,000-strong petition to Parliament calling for the quota to be doubled to 1500 people per year.

Given uncertain and limited funding is endemic in the refugee sector, they know what is achievable. Indeed, many are keen to be involved in a research workshop I'm organising - with Associate Professor Jay Marlowe - at the University of Auckland in November so we can better identify what currently works, what doesn't and how we might prepare for a larger intake of refugees in the future.

Importantly, those in the refugee sector also know that while what we offer might not compare well to other countries who regularly receive refugees, it is the world to someone who has been tortured, lost their family and has no state to call home.

They understand the enormous gratitude former refugees feel towards New Zealand and what it's given them.

An Afghan friend has considered moving to Australia where he believes there will be better wages and employment opportunities, but he just can't forget how lucky he is that the Clark government reunited him with his family after he spent months in exile on Nauru in an Australian detention camp.

The refugee sector also understands the huge potential that young refugees hold.

I was involved in a research project which highlighted the incredibly skilled ways in which these young people navigate between their New Zealand and home-background worlds. Like any teenagers they face challenges, but it is this kind of adaptability that is valued in the job market.

As a university lecturer, I know this ability is one many New Zealand-born Kiwis struggle to grasp.

The increased quota has provoked the Act party, among others, to say we should make refugees and other migrants prove they uphold "New Zealand values".

How do hospitality, paid and unpaid contributions to the community and gratitude not demonstrate this?

Other parties want to monitor public "tolerance" of refugees before making any further increases. At what point will they realise attitudes won't change until we educate people about the benefits of an ethnically diverse society?

To the Government whose miserly increase in the quota suggests a lack of understanding and empathy, I ask: when will you value what we have in front of us?

World Refugee Day is June 20. Let's celebrate it.

- NZ Herald

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