Having finally bowed to public pressure to allow an additional 600 refugees into the country over the next three years, the Government would now do well to rethink how it selects them.

At present its policy is to give humanitarian assistance solely on the basis of need and without regard to religious belief. Impartiality is regarded as one of the fundamental principles of humanitarian action, and rightly so. A starving, homeless, Muslim child is every bit as precious as a starving, homeless, Christian child. Neither should be discriminated against.

However, in the current situation in the Middle East and North Africa, need and religious belief are inextricably linked, so much so that the level of need is determined primarily by religious belief.

There are those who have somewhere to go: a country which shares their faith and refugee camps in which they will be relatively safe.

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Then there are others who have nowhere to go: no country which will welcome them and no refugee camp in which they can find sanctuary. The former group are Sunni Muslims, the latter are Christians.

What few realise is that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees' camps in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Jordan - all Muslim-majority countries - are not safe for Christians. The camps are filled with those who despise and persecute them and it is simply too dangerous for Christians to enter.

The only hope for Christians is to find churches or individuals who will give them refuge; not easy in countries with virtually no remaining Christian presence. The plight of Christians is worse even than that of the Kurds and Druze.

What this in turn means is that Christian refugees do not get registered with the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and are therefore not eligible for resettlement in countries such as New Zealand which fill their refugee quota through the UNHCR.

This is discrimination on the basis of religion, and by ignoring it, Western governments are perpetuating it.

There is a way to address this problem and that is to discriminate positively, to ensure that Christians receive the same level of humanitarian aid as Muslims.

Instead of filling its refugee quota through the UNHCR, the Government could deal directly with reputable aid agencies such as Barnabas Aid International, which have people on the ground in Syria and Iraq supporting Christian refugees and displaced persons.

BAI has recently launched Operation Safe Havens, a programme to provide a safe escape route for Syrian Christians. The Polish Government has already worked with BAI to provide a safe haven for 157 refugees.

BAI pays airfares and basic living expenses for one year, with Polish churches being co-ordinated to welcome and care for the new arrivals, ensuring that the families are helped to settle in, learn the language, and find work to support themselves. A number of New Zealand churches and individuals have indicated they are willing to do likewise.

Discrimination is a dirty word in humanitarian aid but the Government has no qualms discriminating in immigration. The wealthy and well educated get first preference.

A NZME discussion on the refugee crisis, hosted by broadcaster Rachel Smalley, delved into topics such as the cost of refugees, whether New Zealand is doing enough to help the global situation, and how to help refugees long term.

The UNHCR discriminates positively in favour of those classed particularly vulnerable, including the elderly, children separated from their parents, and people with severe medical issues. Our Government accepts this discrimination because it is based on need.

In the case of refugees from Iraq and Syria, religious belief is the primary indicator of need. It is time this was taken into account. Discrimination in favour of Christians will not be an injustice; rather it will address a terrible injustice.

Rev Michael Hewat is pastor at West Hamilton Community Church.
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