The world is witnessing the most dramatic and distressing refugee crisis in many generations. The current crisis of Syrian refugees is part of the global refugee crisis that cuts across Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and South America. The causes are complex and must be understood within the context of international geo-politics. The crisis has deepened considerably in the past decade due to the escalation in the number and intensity of global political conflicts. At the end of 2014, there were over 59.5 million displaced persons globally. Syria’s share was 11.6 million while Iraq contributed another 4.1 million. Fifteen international geo-political hotspots were responsible for most of the crisis, leading to 13.9 million displaced people in 2014 alone.
Refugees and displaced persons are part of global trans-national movement of people displaced by socio-political and cultural conflict, human and natural disasters. While refugees would normally have crossed international borders to seek asylum in countries other than their own, displaced persons may still be inside their countries of origin. The New Zealand government has since 1944 accepted refugees as part of a commitment to fulfilling New Zealand’s international humanitarian obligations and contributing to the international response as a good global citizen.
There are significant public policy issues that must be carefully considered in the current refugee crisis. These include the foreign policy approaches of key global powers that have created the crises in the Middle East – Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria and much more fundamentally the Israel-Palestine conflict that has defied solution since 1947. New Zealand has been at the fore-front of advocating international solutions to some of these crises including more recently at the United Nations Security Council. At the national level there are questions about the number of refugees New Zealand should admit, the overall growth in migrant numbers, and the appropriate formula for funding refugee and migrant resettlement. There are also questions about the capacity of the economy to accommodate large numbers of migrants, and social and health services to meet refugees’ mental and physical health needs, language, education and training to absorb them into the economy so they are not long-term welfare dependent. Then there are further questions about the capacity of local communities to support the integration of refugees and migrants to enhance community cohesion.
At the global level, the UNHCR seeks three outcomes that support refugees to rebuild their lives in dignity and peace. These are referred to as the ‘three durable solutions’ namely voluntary repatriation, local integration, and resettlement in third countries. Voluntary repatriation occurs when refugees feel that the situation in their countries of origin is safe enough for them return and re-establish their lives in a familiar setting under the protection and care of their home country. However, the crises that create refugees in the first instance often become protracted making it difficult to voluntarily repatriate. Thus refugees become established in camps and few lucky ones within communities in countries of first asylum. The challenges of local integration include host communities in countries of first asylum struggling to provide economic and social services to their own citizens, let alone adequately support refugees with high and complex needs. Consequently resettlement in countries of third asylum such as New Zealand, Australia and Germany becomes important. However, less than 500,000 refugees yearly get the opportunity to resettle in third countries.
The current Syrian refugee crisis has focused public attention, comments, analysis and outcry on the limitations of third country settlement. At the international level, leaders such as President François Hollande of France announced intake of 24,000 asylum seekers over two years, Britain said it would take 20,000 refugees from Syria, while Germany committed to taking 500,000 over the next ‘several years’. Prime Minster John Key has announced New Zealand would take a further 600 refugees over the next two or three years in addition to the fixed quota of 750 per year. Many individuals, groups and communities have also offered to take refugees into their homes to help the current international crisis situation.
While the response from the international community is encouraging and helps to deal with the immediate Syrian refugee crisis, it does not address the fundamental causes of the problem. For example, even if all the European Union countries, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand together took one million refugees every year, it will take 59 years to absorb the over 59 million refugees and displaced persons reported by the UNHCR in 2014 by resettlement in third countries. This is assuming that no further refugees will be generated over this period.
A long-term solution to the refugee crisis must go beyond offering our spare bedrooms to refugees. While this is a symbolic gesture of opening our hearts, and is an important starting point to develop sustainable long-term settlement outcomes, it is only palliative, similar to simplistic suggestions such as providing arms to the opposition to resolve the Syrian civil war that generated the current international refugee crisis. While global geo-politics make it extremely difficult to reach sustainable political solutions as in the case of the 70-years Israeli-Palestinian conflict, much deeper international diplomatic and political actions are required to develop long-term solutions. Notwithstanding, the international community must deal with the current crisis, and New Zealand must find long-term strategies for effective refugee resettlement in this country.
Sustainable, effective, long-term response to refugee resettlement in New Zealand must be undertaken within a broader national population policy and community development approach. Migrant and refugee policy must be framed in ways that address the challenge of New Zealand’s demographic transition and focus on national population targets over the next 30-50 years recognising that New Zealand’s population is ageing which has important economic and social implications.
Refugee resettlement from a community development approach involves educating local host communities about who refugees are, why they become refugees, and why it is important for New Zealand as a global citizen to participate in finding solutions to the global crisis. Communities would be educated about the principles of global burden sharing advocated by the UNHCR to lessen the burden borne by countries of first asylum, most which are struggling to lift their own citizens out of poverty and conflict, and still hosting millions of refugees. Countries such as Turkey are currently hosting 1.9 million Syrian refugees, Lebanon 1.2 million, and Jordan 650,000.
Refugee and migrant resettlement must be approached as a partnership between community groups, organisations, local territorial authorities, and refugee and migrant communities, with strong policy and financial support from central government. A sustainable approach would be to build the capacity of these partners to engage a holistic approach to help shape public perceptions and community attitudes about refugees and migrants as national and community assets rather than a threat to national security and economic well-being of citizens. This minimises the potential for political manipulation of refugee and migration policy, and reduces fear in communities about migrants and refugees as a threat to community and national cohesion.
Many refugees are resilient, determined and intelligent people. Many are professionals including engineers, teachers, and health practitioners. The key thing they may lack is the language of the host country. Effective settlement interventions would enable most of them acquire language very quickly, bridge their professional skills and become fully integrated productive citizens. Programmes that support them to build on their strengths enhance their early integration into their new communities. This is demonstrated by the seamless integrating into New Zealand society of the Tampa refugees who were admitted into New Zealand in 2001 following Australian government’s refusal to give them asylum. The greater majority have become very successful citizens as teachers, engineers, accountants and business entrepreneurs, despite their traumatic start to life, separation from family, and the challenges of resettlement in a foreign country.
The world, and in fact New Zealand, should heed German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s counsel to the woman who confronted her with the fear of refugees being a terrorist threat. Her counsel is “fear is a bad adviser”.