The Immigration Minister has not sought any commitment from NZ First to support his promise to lift the refugee quota to 1500, reports Laura Walters.
Less than three months after NZ First leader Winston Peters put the kibosh on Andrew Little’s plan to repeal the hardline three strikes law, Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway risks finding himself in a similar position and will need to walk a fine line to deliver on what he’s referred to as a government promise.
The Labour Party campaigned on lifting the refugee quota to 1500, and since the election Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Lees-Galloway have maintained it is a first-term commitment.
But the promise was never cemented in the Labour-NZ First coalition agreement, the Green Party confidence and supply agreement, or the speech from the throne, meaning it was still up for discussion.
“This is a coalition, this is MMP, this is how things work – that doesn’t change my personal commitment,” Ardern said on Tuesday.
Now comments made by Peters while in Nauru for the Pacific Islands Forum have thrown doubt on whether this promise will materialise.
“We never made a commitment to double the refugee quota,” Peters said when questioned by reporters.
TVNZ reported Peters said New Zealand had to prioritise Kiwis, before taking on new obligations.
“We’ve got 50,000 people back home, and I can show you parts of Hokianga and Northland where people are living in degradation.”
On Tuesday morning, Lees-Galloway said he had not spoken to Peters about his comments on Nauru and while he remained “confident” the Government would be able to deliver on its promise, he had no assurance from NZ First or Peters.
“I never count my chickens on anything. There is a Government process to go through, and I’m going through that…
“I haven’t sought any commitments. The time to seek commitments is through the Cabinet process,” he said.
Lees-Galloway said he had raised the issue with NZ First as part of his broader immigration plans. He said he had not gotten ahead of the process, but it appears to be a very similar situation to the one Little was in earlier in the year, and like Little, Lees-Galloway had no steadfast commitment from his coalition partner.
In June, Lees-Galloway said he was working on a Cabinet proposal. That proposal has still not gone to Cabinet.
New Zealand’s low quota
New Zealand had an annual refugee quota of 750 people for 30 years, before it was lifted to 1000 in response to the Syrian refugee crisis by the previous government, after a prolonged campaign to double the quota.
Before the campaign, New Zealand was 90th in the world in terms of its quota.
National Party immigration spokesman Michael Woodhouse said this was “an extraordinary development”, and a potential setback for the extra refugees who may have settled in New Zealand.
While Woodhouse has not supported further increasing the quota beyond 1000 – instead talking about improving resettlement outcomes – he did say it seemed the dynamics of the coalition was getting in the way of something Lees-Galloway had committed to.
Amnesty International New Zealand campaigns manager Meg de Ronde said at this stage it was a matter of waiting for the process to play out.
Peters had been supportive of lifting the quota in the past, so the organisation remained hopeful he would back Lees-Galloway’s plan.
“Obviously we’re really committed to it and think it’s really important,” de Ronde said.
“For someone that’s been languishing in a camp for the last 10 years of their life, whatever we can provide them as far as a chance to rebuild their life in New Zealand is probably better than spending the next however many years stuck somewhere in a camp.”
Lees-Galloway said part of the reason for delays in announcing plans to lift the quota was a lack of capacity.
But he had been working with Housing Minister Phil Twyford to make sure there was enough social housing available, and sufficient support.
In August, Christchurch reopened as a refugee resettlement centre after being taken out of the programme following the earthquakes.
“There is an extraordinary number of people around the world who need refuge and New Zealand is determined to play its part. Today will go some way to help us achieve lifting our refugee quota to 1500 per year in this term of government,” he said at the time of the announcement.
And in this year’s Budget, $14 million in new funding was allocated to build and operate two new accommodation blocks at the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre, and nearly $4 million in additional funding for the Refugee and Protection Unit.
The Government was also piloting a community support programme, where NGOs helped support refugees.
De Ronde said those working in the area believed there was now the capacity to take the additional refugees.
UNICEF New Zealand managing director Vivien Maidaborn said New Zealand should increase its quota, but it was understandable if the commitment needed to be delayed in order to prioritise the housing and employment needs of struggling New Zealanders.
“We need to go back to first principle: in terms of refugees the best place for people to be helped, and the most scalable way to help people is where the origin of the issue is.”
The size of the refugee quota was immaterial, it was about how and where new Zealand could do the most good, she said.
Most displaced people were in or near their home countries, and it was more helpful to spend money fixing the issues in their homeland so they could return, Maidaborn said.
Budget 2018 included a $715 million boost to foreign aid and development spending, and Peters has said New Zealand needed to be seen to be doing its bit to help global crises and displaced people.
But more was needed, Maidaborn said.