It is one thing to invite refugees to New Zealand – it is altogether a different proposition to extend the welcome, writes the University of Auckland’s Jay Marlowe

In the couple of seconds it took you to click on the link to read this article, one person somewhere in the world was forcibly displaced from their home because of who they are or what they believe.  

That figure will exceed 180 people in the time it takes you to read to the end.   

There is now an estimated 70.8 million people of concern around the world, according to the United Nation Refugee Agency annual Global Trends report released yesterday. This number includes refugees, people who have been displaced but not crossed an international border, stateless people who have been denied a nationality and asylum-seekers. 

To put that number in context – 70.8 million people is more than the population of the UK; it is almost two Canadas, almost 15 New Zealands.

Today, on UN World Refugee Day (June 20), we need to remember that not one of these people chose to be part of this statistic; that no one chooses to be a refugee. Every one of these 70.8 million people – mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, grandparents, sisters, brothers and friends – were forcibly displaced from their homes, communities and often from their families. 

We must also make ourselves aware that more than 85 percent of the world’s refugees are hosted in neighbouring countries, countries that are often the least equipped and resourced to provide support. Nearly 1 in 6 people in Lebanon is from a refugee background. Jordan is close to 1 in 14. Protracted conflicts continue in Syria, Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic and Burundi. More than a million Rohingya people have fled their homes in Myanmar to Bangladesh.  

As a man from South Sudan once told me of his forced migration journey: “When elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled,” describing how those in power are all too willing to  hurt and displace the ordinary people to get their way.

Here in New Zealand, we must also recognise that while we have not directly displaced people, our demands and desires for fuel, rare earth metals that power our phones and cheap goods from the global south foment the contexts for oppression and persecution.  This reality requires pause and critical reflection.  

Along with acknowledging the huge numbers of people forced into a life they never anticipated, we need to recognise that, as climate change tightens it grip, growing numbers will be displaced through disasters, particularly across the Asia Pacific.  

The 1951 refugee definition centres on the idea of a well-founded fear of persecution. But because climates and events such as floods and drought do not persecute people, they are often forgotten about or (more likely) conveniently neglected in international forums and political debate.  

However, estimates suggest that by 2050 we could have between 125 million to one billion people forcibly displaced by climate change. The need for proactive policy solutions and international agreements is sorely needed and pressing.

Further, the distinctions between climate change and conflict refugees are increasingly becoming blurred. The Syrian civil war was preceded by a major drought in the Fertile Crescent and major droughts in Somalia follow a similar pattern. As we look at the impacts of water scarcity, sea level rise, increased storm intensity, desertification and the associated loss of livelihoods, it becomes clear there needs to be more work that connects the dots between climate and persecution. 

So how can New Zealand respond to this massive global issue? 

The good news is we already have a relatively good refugee settlement programme in place. Yes, there are gaps and challenges and the Government needs to ensure settlement support is resourced appropriately. But for many of our newest Kiwis, life in New Zealand opens opportunities for people to craft their lives and support their families in ways that were not previously possible. Along with effectively doubling our refugee quota to 1500 people a year from historic levels, we have six new refugee settlement sites: Ashburton, Timaru, Wanganui, Blenheim, Masterton and Levin.  

But it is one thing to invite refugees to New Zealand – it is altogether a different proposition to extend the welcome. In this context, society as a whole has a critical role to play. Individuals can volunteer with Red Cross or English Language Partners or help directly by welcoming new arrivals. 

You can contact your local MP about supporting refugees to settle, to make the community sponsorship resettlement pathway a permanent programme, and to accelerate policy solutions around the consequences of forced migration due to climate change.  Where refugee settlement is in your community, try meeting your neighbours, help secure employment opportunities or invite our newest Kiwis to your home – one of the most important aspects of integrating in a new society is feeling that one belongs.   

New Zealand has signed up to the United Nations Global Compact, which looks to establish more equitable sharing of responsibilities to forced migration. This compact is not just about burden sharing, it is also about recognising migration as an opportunity.  Research in Europe shows that supporting refugees meets a social good and imperative while also yielding significant economic benefits – investing one euro in refugees can yield two in five years. However, central to this positive calculation is the welcome refugees are given. 

Perhaps a silver lining to a very dark cloud of the Christchurch terrorist attack is that it has made our society more reflective, tolerant and accepting – particularly as it relates to visible difference. How long such sentiments and actions last remains to be seen. World Refugee Day provides a moment to reflect on this as it is our commitment to a long-term welcome that will be our society’s true measure.  

Associate Professor Marlowe’s research focuses on refugee studies and settlement futures as it relates to migration policy, role of technologies and disaster risk reduction. In 2019 he became a Rutherford Discovery Fellow to pursue a five year research programme related to refugee settlement trajectories.  

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