Six refugees from Australia’s offshore detention centre, including some who’d been there nine years, have arrived in New Zealand - the first to do so as part of an offer made nearly a decade ago.
Refugee advocates have hailed the moment while urging New Zealand to step up its efforts with the lives of about 200 people remaining in limbo.
The six men - four Rohingya from Myanmar, one from South Sudan and one from Cameroon - arrived in Auckland on Tuesday. They’d been held in detention centres on Nauru, some since 2013.
Sydney-based Refugee Action Coalition’s Ian Rintoul said he’d spoken to them just before they departed for New Zealand.
“They were very happy to be leaving. Happy to get off Nauru and come to New Zealand, but there is a long way to go until we finalise the situation on Nauru.
“It should never have been open in the first place and we are a long way from getting it closed.”
The arrivals are the first in a resettlement deal first offered nine years ago by former prime minister John Key to take in 150 refugees from Australia’s offshore centres every year.
Since 2012, all asylum seekers who arrive by boat in Australia - over 4000 - have been sent to offshore processing centres for determination of their claim for protection, and held there indefinitely.
The system has been consistently criticised by human rights groups, refugees themselves and the United Nations, which has said Australia’s system violates the convention against torture. The International Criminal Court called the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” and unlawful under international law.
Former Australian prime minister Scott Morrison in March this year took up New Zealand’s offer, which would see up to 150 refugees arrive per year for three years who are in Nauru or Australia.
Rintoul said there were about 98 people remaining in Nauru and another 98 in Papua New Guinea, transferred there after the Australian-run detention centre on Manus Island was shut down at the end of last year.
New Zealand’s deal does not include those in Papua New Guinea, and any who come here do so through the regular quota programme. It is understood a family arrived here about a month ago.
“Our concern is that we are a long way short of the 150 and only one family has arrived from Papua New Guinea,” Rintoul said.
“We are very concerned about [those remaining] and there seems to be little movement.
“There’s no reason at all why New Zealand can’t take 150, get most if not all the people off Nauru and look at Papua New Guinea.”
Rintoul said he understood at least 14 more people had interviews about coming to New Zealand and he was not sure why they were still waiting.
“I think the New Zealand Government could be far more proactive and engage with Papua New Guinea. People there are very similar to Nauru, they’ve been over and over their refugee claims, been assessed by Australia and UNHCR, there is no reason why New Zealand cannot take them.”
Rintoul said part of the problem was Australia had been acting as the “gatekeeper” in the deal.
“It just meant that people weren’t shifted from Nauru until it suited Australia, not when it suited human rights or when it suited refugees and in that sense, tragically, I think the New Zealand Government has been complicit in prolonging the detention on Nauru and Papua New Guinea.”
Immigration Minister Michael Wood confirmed the first group of six people had arrived in New Zealand and were at the Māngere Refugee Resettlement Centre in Auckland.
“It’s obviously very positive for those people. It’s progress on the arrangement.
“We’re going to give those people some space to settle, but as I understand they are settling in well.
“I’ve got no doubt that they will be pleased to have reached this point, and have the opportunity to permanently settle in a country like New Zealand.”
Wood said he accepted it was a “slow process” and he could not confirm any timeframes on when more refugees would arrive, nor if the 150 figure would be reached.
“We’re working through that carefully with Australia. It is a slow process to work through. We work through the UNHCR system, which means that people need to voluntarily identify that they want to come to New Zealand.
“There are some complexities in that there are other settlement pathways, including the USA and Canada.
“So I don’t expect that it will move forward quickly in terms of numbers, but there is focused attention from both Australia and New Zealand around trying to provide the pathway as expeditiously as we can.”
Per head of population, New Zealand has one of the lowest rates of refugee acceptance in the world, even after the current Government increased the annual refugee quota in 2020 from 1000 to 1500.
This equates to about 0.3 refugees per 1000 people and ranks New Zealand 95th in the world.
Similar-sized countries like Norway and Ireland accept 11.29 and 1.22 refugees per 1000 residents, ranking them 15th and 69th respectively.
Due to Covid-19, New Zealand has not met its quota since 2019 with a shortfall of more than 2000 people.
The Government says it is committed to reaching the full 1500 in 2022/23 but not to make up for the shortfall.
The Government has said while internationally New Zealand’s numbers were low there was a very high level of support for resettlement.