Refugees: Gain or Drain?

26 March 2014, 01:00 UTC | New Zealand
A family of nine children in Kilis, Turkey. © Amnesty International/Anna Shea
By Grant Bayldon - Executive Director Amnesty International NZ

What do Albert Einstein, the Dalai Lama, John Key’s mother and Jesus Christ have in common?

Answer: They all fled for their lives from their countries and became refugees.

Not all refugees are so famous. If you’ve taken a taxi lately there’s a good chance you’ve been driven by a Burmese doctor, an Ethiopian teacher or a Syrian scientist – working long hours as resettled refugees to get their family established in a new country.

There’s not much public debate about our refugee programme in New Zealand. In many ways that’s a good thing. We only need to look at Australia to see what can happen when a complex and hugely important issue becomes a political hot potato. Lots of heat, not a lot of light.

Refreshing as the New Zealand ‘just get on with it’ approach to refugee resettlement is, it hides some important issues that we’d do well to think and talk about.

Grant Bayldon, Executive Director at Amnesty International New Zealand

But refreshing as the New Zealand ‘just get on with it’ approach to refugee resettlement is, it hides some important issues that we’d do well to think and talk about.

Firstly, on the international stage we’re really not doing our bit – in fact our annual intake of refugees is tiny by world standards, even for our size. Made up of mainly United Nations quota refugees plus a small number of successful asylum seekers, it’s around just 750 – a fraction of our total immigration numbers of around 50,000 per year. For all Australia’s faults on this issue, they take five times as many refugees as New Zealand on a per capita basis.

Secondly, there’s not a lot of public understanding. Many mistakenly believe refugees come here for economic reasons, or that if refugees were genuine they’d simply stay in the neighbouring countries they often have to pass through to get here.

Many are surprised to learn that in fact you can only become approved as a refugee if you can prove that you are fleeing human rights abuse, war or death – and that staying in neighbouring countries is not often an option because many countries do not properly recognise refugee rights.

To stay in a country that doesn’t recognise your rights as a refugee means to remain an illegal immigrant indefinitely. You couldn’t legally work, your children couldn’t go to school, and you would remain at risk of arrest, detention and deportation for the rest of your life.

There’s a strong case to help the world’s most vulnerable people, simply out of a sense of humanity – to offer the sort of hand up we’d want if the roles were reversed. But what of the other side, the benefits to New Zealand? Is it just an act of charity or does it really stack up for us as a country?

New Zealand prides itself on punching above its weight on the world stage; this is how the Government pitched for a seat on the United Nations Security Council. But without pulling our weight in areas like refugee resettlement, peacekeeping and development, our international profile starts to just look like trade, trade, trade – a kind of cynical ‘Fonterra Foreign Policy’. Doing our share to resettle refugees is an important part of our international responsibility and credibility.

And the hard numbers – the actual contribution of settled refugees?

It’s difficult to get robust New Zealand data on this, but a recent major study in Australia by the Government’s Department of Immigration and Citizenship is a good guide.

As you’d expect, the early years are often difficult for new refugees, so work rates start out lower, but converge toward the national average with time in the country. It’s the second generation where things really start to take off, with work rates higher than the national average.

The study concludes that there are significant economic benefits to the country, with refugees more likely to start businesses and to move to rural areas experiencing labour shortages.

The research also outlines the strengthening of international links that refugees provide; for trading countries like New Zealand and Australia these connections are of major significance.

But while the positive spin-offs for New Zealand are a bonus, they’re not really the point.

The Refugee Convention – the United Nations agreement under which we take quota refugees and asylum seekers – was drawn up after the Second World War. We all know of the horrors of the Nazi regime, but what isn’t so well known is that people who fled Nazi Germany often had no legal way of claiming protection in the countries to which they escaped. Tragically many were sent back to their deaths.

So the Refugee Convention recognised a basic human right: to seek protection if we are forced to flee our country. If we believe that this should be a fundamental right for all – one we would wish for ourselves if it were ever needed – then New Zealand needs to play its part in providing this protection.

That’s why Amnesty International is urging the New Zealand government to seek an increase in the number of refugees we take, and to work with other countries in the Asia Pacific region to provide other settlement options. You can help by letting your local MP know these are issues you care about.

People throughout New Zealand are already doing inspiring work to help refugee families resettle here, and more are needed. Contact the Red Cross Refugee Services to provide practical help as a volunteer.

Take action now, ask the New Zealand government to double the refugee quota >>

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