Murdoch Stephens: Wealth is worth nothing if we don t help

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New Zealand has the capacity to help more refugees, now it's up to politicians to commit.
Many New Zealanders are upset at the plight of refugees around the world. Photo / Greg Bowker
Many New Zealanders are upset at the plight of refugees around the world. Photo / Greg Bowker

On Monday, Immigration New Zealand will send its advice to Cabinet on what our refugee quota should be for the next three years. Three years of campaigning to double our quota to 1500 places is reaching a crucial moment.

Prime Minister John Key could announce an increase to be proud of - the first in 30 years - next month. That would be a true response to the global crisis. But will he do it?

One argument that is regularly brought up when talking about refugees and New Zealand's tiny quota is that we need to look after our own first. Charity begins at home, people tell me.

I always wonder about what is unsaid in both of these phrases. We look after our own first, and then we look after others? Second, third, ever? Charity begins at home, but does it also end there?

I share deep concerns with those who see rising inequality in New Zealand, who struggle to pay the bills and who are worried about their family and communities.

I share those concerns because I'm affected: I am flatting into my 30s, earning the equivalent of full-time work on the minimum wage and I can't imagine starting a family on my income.

But if those who are worried about inequality in this country think that excluding refugees will cure their ills then they're pointed in the wrong direction.

Stopping New Zealand doing its fair share for refugees might mean there are some short-term spaces in state houses that other New Zealanders can take up. Great. But this will do nothing to ease the Auckland housing crisis or to stop the privatisation of state housing assets. It will not mean benefits rise or that students' loans stop growing.

We live in a country that has doubled its real (inflation-adjusted) GDP over the past three decades, which means the country has grown in population and wealth. And yet we've only decreased the number of refugees we accept.

In their first years in a new country, refugees are the most dependent and vulnerable people besides children - they need English language lessons, state housing, education, volunteers to help them learn about life here.

Much of what neo-liberalism praises is antithetical to the compassion of a government-run refugee resettlement programme. Our refugee quota is tiny. We take just over 200 families a year, spread over six regions. About 40 per cent are kids who had no say in the wars and persecution their parents have secured them protection from.

We've never been in the business, and neither has Europe and North America, of relocating every refugee. The quota places are only for those emergency cases of people least likely to survive prolonged displacement from their countries of origin. That's why we have a woman-at-risk category that has recently accounted for 150 people a year.

Even the Prime Minister has said it is not a question of money. In September he said cost was not a factor. Two months later an Immigration New Zealand spokesperson said we had the capacity to increase the quota to 1500 if it was resourced.

People who look at costs and short-term user-pays models assume that because refugees start from the bottom they will always be a weight on the state. They never look at the refugee successes such as our Jewish, Polish and Indochinese communities. Perhaps a better way to think of the initial costs of refugees is to see it as taken care of by the taxes paid by those established refugee communities.

Under the previous Government there was an aim to have 10 per cent of immigration come in under humanitarian categories. That aim shows it is not such a strange idea to suggest that some of the economic benefit of millionaire immigrants go towards egalitarian ends.

But despite refugees being only a short-term cost and contributing greatly to our culture and society in the mid to long term, the idea that we need to look after our own first persists. There is an underlying appeal in the idea that if we ignore refugees' peril that somehow New Zealanders will be better off.

We need to stand together to look after our poor and offer a fair intake of refugees. Doubling the quota from 750 places a year is a modest, reasonable and achievable increase. If we can't do that at the height of the worst refugee crisis since World War II then I really don't know the worth of all the wealth created in the last 30 years.

Murdoch Stephens leads the Doing Our Bit campaign to double New Zealand's refugee quota. On Monday at 6pm he, along with Dame Susan Devoy, will speak on the issue at Auckland University.

- NZ Herald

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