Refugee Policy Holds A Mirror Up To Ourselves

Tracey Barnett

What happens when New Zealand holds a mirror up to its refugee policies and a blotchy reflection stares back?

On the world stage, New Zealand has always seen itself as fair brokers when it comes to its treatment of refugees. For the most part, we have deserved that respect.

Worldwide, our asylum processes and appeal system are largely seen as healthy and fair. We allow asylum applicants to wait in the community for the months it can take for their cases to be determined. New Zealand’s community-based approach is not only lauded for being more humane, but happens to be far cheaper than imprisonment too. Just ask the Australian government, now shouldering a staggering $400,000 price tag per single asylum seeker on Nauru and Manus Island. Australia’s offshore detention regime is now ten times more expensive than allowing people to live in the community.

Asking for protection from persecution or war doesn’t suddenly make you a criminal. New Zealand has signed the 1951 UN Refugee Convention that honours that pledge. But actual policy is often buried under widespread misconceptions, myths that have gained such media traction, they become hard to correct with facts. Here are three basic refugee tenets that haven’t quite found their equal time in public discourse yet:

  1. Seeking asylum is a legal right in this country, and in 147 others who have signed the UN Refugee Conventions. That is why branding asylum seekers as ‘illegals’ is incorrect. Asylum applicants will undergo months of rigorous government scrutiny to see if they will ultimately be granted ‘refugee status’ and win the right to stay. They must be suffering from persecution (the UNHCR definition of a refugee). No matter how someone arrives—whether it’s by boat, plane, or surfboard—asking officials for asylum is the first legal step to being granted the right to protection under the Refugee Convention we signed over a half-century ago.
  1. There is no such thing as a ‘queue’. There never was. For the most part, resettlement by the UNHCR is not first come, first served. Simply put, it is more like rolling triage, needs based first. That means if you are relatively safe in an established camp along the Thai-Myanmar border, for example, you may be there for years, even decades, if the UNHCR has to suddenly pivot to urgent Syrian needs. That is why the phrase ‘queue-jumper’ is widely seen as an imported, derogatory slur among the international refugee community.
  1. Finally, academic studies from all over the world have found that detention does not equal deterrence. Indeed, when folks have to choose between certain death at home, or the chance at life – even though this involves a risky boat journey – they will choose the possibility of life every time. They choose the chance of life, even if that means being locked up at the end of the journey. But research also shows many don’t know the detention policies of their destination country before they set off.

That is why it was so striking when our Prime Minister first introduced a ‘mass arrivals’ bill in 2012, a measure that would amount to mandatory detention of any future boat arrivals over ten people (later amended to thirty).

A new tone had suddenly entered the nation’s refugee conversation. At the Prime Minister’s press conference introducing the bill, and in the weeks to follow, John Key and then Immigration Minister, Nathan Guy, would refer to asylum arrivals as ‘illegal’. The Prime Minister said these people were ‘jumping the queue’. This bill would ‘deter’ arrivals, he concluded.

Those in the New Zealand refugee community were baffled. Why had New Zealand’s previously humanitarian tone changed so dramatically? Here was a policy with a clearly political message instead: New Zealand was not to be seen as a ‘soft touch’ This, despite the fact that an asylum boat has never reached New Zealand shores, at least in modern history.

The bill passed, quietly.

But what changed that day was a growing question mark from the international community. Regional players were beginning to ask if New Zealand was now choosing to follow Australia’s detention policy lead.

In February 2013, there were new, unanswered questions. Coming out of a Queenstown conference with John Key, then Prime Minister Julia Guillard invited New Zealand to send any potential boat arrivals to Australia’s Nauru and Manus Island asylum detention prisons.

Was New Zealand now subtly endorsing Australia’s highly contentious offshore refugee imprisonment policy too?

With the influx of refugees into Europe making headlines in the last several months, average New Zealanders have started to hold up a mirror to our own refugee policies.

The reality of that reflection was surprising to those unfamiliar with this very small sector within New Zealand life. Per capita, we rank 90th in the world for the total number of refugees and asylum seekers we host. If you measure by GDP, we rank lower still, 116th in the world.

Indeed, our tiny annual UNHCR resettlement quota of 750 has been stalled for 28 years now, even though our population has grown by almost 40 percent since the quota was set in 1987. (The only time our quota has changed was when it was dropped by 50 places, from 800, in 1997, to where it remains at 750 today).

In light of the magnitude of this current refugee crisis not seen since WWII, countries with a population comparable to New Zealand’s have chosen to act. Ireland has offered to take another 2,900 refugees, bringing their contribution to 4,000. Norway has agreed to take 8,000. Lebanon, also a country roughly New Zealand’s population size, is now attempting to support 1.2 million refugees, mostly Syrians.

New Zealand’s response has been significantly less open, with Prime Minister John Key stating previously that our quota of 750 ‘was just about right’. Recently reacting to widespread public support, the government has now offered to host an emergency in-take of 100 refugees this year, with another 500 over the next two years, bringing our total emergency in-take to 600 over 2.5 years. Currently, there are still calls to significantly increase the permanent quota.

The annual quota is due for its three-yearly review next year.


Those interested in keeping abreast of New Zealand and international refugee issues are welcome to ‘like’ the Facebook page, WagePeaceNZ. Tracey Barnett’s video and television commentary can be found on her YouTube channel. Her columns can be found on her website. Her work has been published in ten countries.


A quick cheat-sheet definition of terms

Refugee: Someone who has crossed his or her home border owing to a well-founded fear of persecution due to political opinion, race, religion, nationality or social group.

Asylum Seeker: Someone still in the process of asking for refugee protection from another country. That means their case has not been   determined. They have not yet been granted ‘refugee status’ by authorities, which carries more protections and rights under the UN Refugee Convention.





Categories: Refugees
Tracey Barnett
About the author

Tracey Barnett

Columnist & Commentator
Tracey Barnett has been a contributing columnist and commentator for The New Zealand Herald, The Sunday Star Times, TVNZ and TV3, among others. She is the author of The Quiet War on Asylum, a concise introduction to asylum issues in New Zealand and Australia. She is also the creator of the asylum awareness campaign, We Are Better Than That and most recently, WagePeaceNZ, an initiative to increase the refugee quota and raise awareness about refugee issues in New Zealand.