Dr Avril Bell: Race Relations Day in NZ

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Auckland Mayor Len Brown celebrates with schoolchildren on Race Relations Day 2008. File photo / NZ Herald
Auckland Mayor Len Brown celebrates with schoolchildren on Race Relations Day 2008. File photo / NZ Herald

The theme of Race Relations Day this year is 'belonging to Aotearoa New Zealand'. We are asked to reflect on our sense of belonging and the fact that some New Zealanders are 'made to feel like outsiders'. I want to reflect on the massive disconnect between these feel good activities and the reality of our immigration and refugee policies.

What I want to think about on Race Relations Day is how grateful I am to the refugees who come and settled in New Zealand and how angry I am at the disregard with which we treat them.

We feel good about the paltry 750 refugees we take in per year while Australia, despite its campaign against 'boat people', takes in 20,000. We take in only one refugee per year for every 6000 New Zealanders; Australia takes in one refugee for every 1175 Australians.

We like to feel that we are less racist than Australia, but there is no question that they are doing more for the many millions of displaced people in the world languishing in refugee camps and other insecure and unsafe living environments.

And we make a sharp divide between refugees and asylum seekers on the one hand and 'regular' migrants on the other. Accepting refugees is seen as a humanitarian issue, while our immigration policy is all about the economy. We target potential migrants as economic raw material. Do they bring wealth or employment-related skills? That's all we care about.

Refugees, like all migrants, move in search of a better life. For both groups meaningful and fairly paid work is a crucial part of that better life and that is supposedly what we want too. But where we let both groups down, and especially refugees, is in how little we do to prepare them for work in New Zealand and then help them find work.

Recent research by the Changemakers Refugee Forum in Wellington found that 'convention refugees' (those who arrive here as asylum-seekers) often end up as a 'twilight' population, with little access to the support services that UNHCR refugees get.

But even for UNHCR refugees those services are often inadequate from my observation. Yes, we provide refugees with English language classes, we provide housing and welfare benefits. But that's pretty much it. Then they can languish on inadequate benefits in poverty conditions because we do so little to support their transition to work.

Our mean and nasty welfare policies are geared to punish beneficiaries to 'incentivise' them to work. But work where? If you are a poorly educated refugee with limited English, employment discrimination is a massive barrier and often this sector of the population end up in highly exploitative work situations if they manage to find work at all.

The reality is that some adult refugees are not going to make the transition to work in New Zealand. It is too hard for them with limited education and English. But their children are a completely different story.

They are a national treasure to a country that is crying out for young people committed to living here, working hard and making a contribution. And they are a treasure we are squandering. These young people are at least partially educated in New Zealand.

Their English is good and they have a massive will to work hard, to look after their families and to contribute to our society. But from 2010 we cut the Refugee Study Grant that supported these young people, inevitably from poor families, to complete bridging courses to a tertiary education.

Humanitarianism and economic interests are not sharply divided as we currently treat them. We need to do more to support refugees and migrants into work as a crucial part of the welcome we like to think we offer.

Rather than reflect on belonging to Aotearoa this Race Relations Day, please do something to enhance the belonging of refugees and asylum seekers. Get in touch with your local Refugee and Migrant Services office and volunteer; donate to the refugee family reunification trusts that help fund the applications and arrivals of family member; if you are an employer, think hard about the barriers to refugee and migrant employment in your workplace and what you can do to change them; and all of us - get to know a refugee or migrant family in your neighbourhood.

If each New Zealand household welcomed one migrant or refugee family that feeling of belonging would skyrocket.

* Dr Avril Bell is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Auckland

- NZ Herald

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