One of the lesser-noted points in Prime Minister John Key's speech last year on the New Zealand response to the crisis caused by Isis was that "we will be looking at further assistance to meet the needs of Syrian and Iraqi refugees fleeing their country".

Two weeks ago, as he announced that we were about to make a military contribution to the fight in Iraq, this promise failed to get a mention. This is a regrettable omission, as any military contribution should be buttressed with a strong social contribution.

The most direct way we can do this is to accept more refugees into New Zealand. There are around 4 million refugees from the wars in Syria and Iraq already. These people are among at least 50 million people globally who are fleeing violence. The numbers have not been this high since World War II.

Most - some 35 million - are internally displaced persons, effectively refugees in their own countries. The other 15 million are outside their own country and are unable or unwilling to return because they fear someone may try to kill them.

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These 15 million are refugees, dependent on charity and often despised by the surrounding communities they depend upon. This leaves only one unlikely option, resettlement in other countries. Fewer than 1 per cent of the world's refugees are resettled in any given year.

New Zealand has a good tradition of helping the forcibly displaced. This dates to the 19th century, and especially after World War II, when we committed ourselves to the primary international laws in this area.

However, it was only in 1987 that the government committed itself to a base target of 800 people a year for resettlement. This target was later lowered to 750, but we often take more. The last time we took a large number of additional people in need was when we were last on the UN Security Council in the 1990s, and help was required with the overflow of Somalian refugees. These are actions to be proud of.

While it is fair that we should accept smaller numbers because we are a smaller country, on a per-capita basis we do not look admirable. Countries such as the United States, Australia, Canada, Norway and Sweden accept many more people per capita.

Why we are falling behind is a matter of speculation. The humanitarian justification to help is obvious. Restrictions based upon economic growth, employment or even physical space, when compared to other countries, are feeble.

Although there are short-term economic costs involved in resettling, the evidence suggests that after the new citizens have been integrated the drive for these people to become the best citizens they can in the country that gave them a chance, is exemplary. Their levels of entrepreneurial and labour contribution are above average, as are the education results and employment records for their children. Their levels of crime are often lower than national averages.

Mr Key should increase the number of refugees for resettlement to at least 1000 people a year. Although this would not place us on par with comparable countries, it would be a step towards rectifying an imbalance that is not defensible.

This is especially so as we need to show leadership on the Security Council, and we are sending soldiers to one of the regions these people are coming from.

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Professor Alexander Gillespie is law professor at Waikato University and author of The Causes of War.