COMMENT: The Government's raising of the refugee quota is indeed - as the Prime Minister says - "the right thing to do".
It is also a gain for Labour. The party had campaigned on raising the quota while in Opposition, and has now made good on its promise to increase it to 1500 a year (from 2020) in its first term of government. It signifies progress for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who had little say or sway on the refugee issue while at the Pacific Islands Forum in Nauru earlier this month, and who can now attend the annual gathering of the United Nations General Assembly in New York with a humanitarian feather in her cap.
There has been some speculation about what has been sacrificed in return for Winston Peters' support of the policy, given recent conflicting comments by Ardern and the Deputy Prime Minister, but it must be remembered NZ First has been among those pushing for change to the quota in recent years in the face of the biggest refugee crisis since World War II, sparked by the ongoing conflict in Syria. The main factor groups differed on was the number.
New Zealand's refugee quota had stood at 750 for the 30-something years of the scheme. In 2016 the National-led government bowed to public pressure (a 20,000-strong petition was presented to Parliament that year) and agreed to increase the quota to 1000 (from this year) and grant a one-off emergency intake of 600 extra Syrian refugees.
AdvertisementAdvertise with NZME.
Cost and capacity were cited at the time for the cautious rise in the general quota, and of course the same concerns are valid now, particularly as pressures on housing and the health system mount.
But in the context of the 60,000-70,000 permanent residents and some three million tourists New Zealand welcomes a year (with associated costs), the quota rises so far are minimal and surely not a burden on a prosperous nation like New Zealand. It is certainly the least the country can do ethically. Our contribution in per capita terms remains pitiful compared with comparable nations, and many far poorer countries are doing much, much more.
Any government here is right to ensure, however, the country has the necessary infrastructure to support refugees. A few weeks - however intensive - in a resettlement centre is not enough to help exhausted and traumatised people recover from the physical and psychological scars they have endured, to help them integrate by learning the language, customs and culture of their adopted country, and to equip them with the necessary skills to find employment and undertake education. Support must be comprehensive, consistent, ongoing and properly funded.
The Government is certainly putting its money where its mouth is: $6.2 million of new operating funding and $7.7 million of new capital for the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre, and $32.5 million for more refugee housing.
If the money is well invested in support, and communities remain willing to embrace their new citizens - which appears to be the case in our various resettlement cities - one day we may stop thinking of refugees as a cost, and learn to welcome the skills and knowledge they bring, celebrate the diversity they add, and recognise how they contribute to our understanding of the world. Surely, done right, it can be a win all round.