It was a vision of an inclusive utopia the other week when the first group of Syrian refugees were welcomed to New Zealand with a powhiri.

The immigrants' sheer enthusiasm to assimilate was clearly in evidence, as they responded to the welcoming waiata E Hara with a rousing version of Michael Jackson's Heal The World, followed up with a traditional Syrian chant.

I wondered if anyone had thought of throwing Tom Petty's song Refugee ("You don't have to live like a refugee") into the mix.

Some residents do not, however, receive such an inclusive reception.


In recent years the New Zealand Government put a filter on people who could apply for permanent residency in Godzone.

This was designed to stop people who would be a 'burden' on our society and the taxpayer from sucking us dry. Included in the criteria is health issues, so that in particular non-New Zealand residents would not be able to drain our much-coveted free health service.

This seems all right on the surface but it does lead one to ponder some fundamental disability issues. For example, are disabled people unhealthy?

I didn't think that disability and poor health went together but when you look at the list of conditions that are included in the Residency Law I was surprised to say the least.

The following are a few examples of "medical conditions deemed to impose significant cost or demands on New Zealand health and/or education services"

- HIV infection
- poorly controlled epilepsy
- cerebrovascular disease
- cerebral palsy
- paraplegia
- quadriplegia
- severe hearing loss (where significant support is required)
- severe vision impairment (where significant support is required)

The list goes on.

Sidestepping the obvious ethical debate of 'should we be discriminating against people who have health conditions?', let's focus on the questions:

- Are disabled people unhealthy?
- Are disabled people automatically a burden on society?

Most of the impairments or conditions are suffixed with "where significant support is required".

Some of the examples above are disabilities that remain constant throughout life.

I see cerebral palsy in the list. I'm glad my parents had the foresight to apply for my residency when they did or I could be surrounded by devastation from the Cyclone Winston in my birth place of Fiji as I write this.

We've had two pertinent cases in the media recently.

Juliana Carvalho is one. Juliana has used a wheelchair since the age of 19.

The Herald on Sunday recently reported on her stoush with Immigration, who have declined her application for permanent residency.
She is a disabled advocate working full-time in the disability sector.

"A lot of people see disability as an illness and it is not. I am not a burden," Carvalho told the Herald on Sunday.

I asked Juliana what kind of ongoing support she needs.

"I am totally independent, I can drive, I push my wheelchair, so basically I am capable of living without ongoing support," she said.

Given that Juliana is a disability advocate and she has had to engage in this level of self-advocacy, what hope have less politically-informed people with disabilities got of fighting immigration?

Recently there was significant media coverage and general outrage when a prestigious, Belgian mathematics professor chose to leave New Zealand after his autistic stepson was refused residency on health grounds.

The international media reported that the Associate Professor Dimitri Leemans said Immigration New Zealand had broken the UN Convention on Human Rights by refusing his 13-year-old stepson Peter residency because of the ongoing and future health burden of his condition.

"I do not see myself raising my children in a country that does not respect the UN convention on human rights."

Immigration New Zealand said in a statement that Peter was deemed to require "continuous, structured residential care".

What I found interesting about these two cases is that Juliana only had three stories written about her but the Leemans family had at least eight local and international stories written about their plight.

Was it the prominence of the professor or do disabled children make better headlines than wheelchair-using adults? Do we not value all three?

It seems to me that Immigration New Zealand decides what 'significant support' entails.

This is a nebulous concept. Everyone will require significant support at some stage in their life, especially at the start and the end of our lives.

It is part and parcel of the human condition. In New Zealand we have the Human Rights Act which outlaws discrimination on the grounds of gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual preference and disabilities.

However this law is full of loopholes when it comes to government and national interests.

Article 18 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities makes it clear that disabled people have the right to choose their residence and nationality on an equal basis with others.

We've signed this Convention, even sent an entourage to New York to report on how well we're doing.

We currently have several government policies and overarching documents which purport to be inclusive and valuing of people with disabilities.

There is the New Zealand Disability Strategy which is currently under review, for which I have been appointed to the review advisory group.

I wonder whether we will write a new strategy which will have a vision of 'A society that highly values the lives and continually enhances the full participation of disabled people' apart from disabled immigrants! Well, I'd like to use that well-worn cliché 'not on my watch'.

Rhetoric abounds about the value immigrants can add to our country.

However when the two (immigrants and disability) are combined, it seems the love is just not there.

I asked Paul Gibson, the Disability Rights Commissioner at the Human Rights Commission, what his thoughts were.

"I am concerned to hear stories like this, denying disabled people and their families what they seek through immigration," he said.

Although there is a statutory limitation in the Immigration Act on the Commission's ability to get involved in individual immigration cases I intend to engage with relevant government agencies to raise concerns about the position of disabled people and their families in the immigration process and to discuss the potential for legislative or policy changes in this area to better support the rights of disabled people as expressed in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

It is a matter that may be able to be addressed through the forthcoming review of the New Zealand Disability strategy and updated disability Action Plan."

We all know that the biggest barriers disabled people face are attitudinal barriers.

Often we point fingers at the media or antiquated prejudice or sheer ignorance, but sometimes attitudinal influences come right from the top.

The quota for UNHCR-mandated refugees to enter New Zealand is set annually by Cabinet.

Currently the quota is set at 750 per year. Quota refugees may arrive under the following categories:

- Women at Risk
- Protection
- Medical/disabled

So no, you don't have to live like a refugee. Someone tell Immigration!

- Jonny Wilkinson is the CEO of Tiaho Trust - Disability A Matter of Perception, a Whangarei based disability advocacy organisation