After awkward contradictions by coalition partner Winston Peters, on 19 September Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that from 2020 onwards New Zealand would raise the refugee quota to 1500 people.
For 30 years, despite massive displacement taking place across the globe, the New Zealand quota has remained fixed at 750. In 2016, the National government raised this to 1000, a move Andrew Little referred to as “less than the bare minimum.” This meant that our refugee intake was a quarter of Australia’s measured on a per-capita basis. This recent increase will bring us to half the Australian quota.
Ardern’s announcement has been widely praised, yet the headlines fail to properly give readers any context. We are in the midst of what many refer to as a ‘refugee crisis.’ Our quota is one piece in a much larger, much more complex puzzle. It is impossible to properly analyse what role New Zealand is playing without considering the wider picture.
The refugee quota refers to the number of refugees New Zealand takes through the UN Refugee Agency’s (“UNHCR”) resettlement program. When a refugee leaves their country and seeks asylum in another, they are faced with three durable solutions. Firstly, repatriation. This is when a refugee returns home to the country they originally came from. However, in the current climate many countries may remain unsafe for the foreseeable future, making this an unworkable option. Moreover, even if politicians agree, the individuals whose lives are at stake may see matters differently. Recently, the Myanmar government came to a repatriation agreement with the UN—an agreement that has since been strongly rejected by the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. For many refugees, repatriation will never happen.
The second option is staying in the host country, which is generally not a perfect solution either. Due to simple geographical constraints, large numbers of refugees tend to flood into the countries nearby. These high numbers make it logistically impossible to assimilate all refugees into society – leading to refugees being confined to camps. Jordan, for example, borders Syria and has seen massive migration since the beginning of the civil war. The Zaatari refugee camp, 12 kilometres from the Syrian border, is the current home for approximately 80,000 people. At its peak, Zaatari was the fourth largest city in Jordan.
This leaves resettlement, with 35 states accepting submissions from the UNHCR, which is mandated by international law to resettle refugees. What many people do not realise when they read the figures in the news is that New Zealand and its international partners are barely making a dent. In 2017 there were 19.9 million refugees in the world. Only one percent was resettled.
This figure is particularly concerning because it means the burden for supporting refugees continues to fall disproportionately on developing countries. The countries currently facing conflict and human rights violations are normally in poor areas of the world. Their already struggling neighbours see masses of refugees simply due to their geographical position. Amnesty recorded that 85% of refugees are settled in developing countries, stating:
“Wealthier countries aren’t doing nearly enough to share the cost of protecting people who have left everything behind … In short, the world urgently needs a new, global plan based on genuine international cooperation and a meaningful and fair sharing of responsibilities.”
Developed countries – like New Zealand or the United States – are geographically and politically better positioned to avoid taking on the cost of refugees, and the resettlement programme does little to fix this. It depends on the good will of states in setting their quota and accepting refugees, which appears to be decreasing in recent years. In 2017, only 75,188 refugees were resettled: nearly 100,000 fewer than the total only the year before. States are also given the final say in who they take, meaning that the number submitted by the UNHCR is not the same number as those who actually make it to the new country. In 2017, the UNHCR submitted 75,000 people for resettlement, but only 65,000 people were resettled.
Another factor that should not be forgotten in discussions about the quota is that resettlement is not the only means for refugees to come to a country like New Zealand. There is also the option of family reunification, but most importantly people can apply for refugee status when in a country. The Refugee Convention 1951 establishes the legal criteria to be classified as a refugee – a well-founded fear of persecution for a convention ground. If an individual meets this criteria a state cannot expel or return them. Effectively, if you can meet the refugee definition, you can settle in that country.
In New Zealand, refugee claims are made at the Refugee Status Branch. Between 2017-2018, 131 of these claims were approved. This compares to 5,957 successful claims in the United Kingdom, and 13,020 in France. As New Zealand is far off in the Pacific, it is significantly more difficult for refugees to make it to our territory. Our quota should therefore be considered in light of this fact that we naturally do not have high levels of spontaneous arrivals.
An increase of 500 to our quota is 500 people who will be given a new chance at life. That is objectively and inarguably a good thing. However, it is easy to be distracted by this. For a long time New Zealand has been doing very little to support refugees, previously being ranked 116th in the world for hosting refugees. 1500 is better, but better does not mean perfect. While New Zealand cannot fix the refugee crisis on its own, it can actively do its part.
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