As the United Nations pleads with countries to resume refugee resettlement, New Zealand’s refugee community is calling on the Government to showcase leadership on global humanitarian issues

Refugee advocates say the Government’s lack of a plan on how it will meet its global humanitarian commitments during the Covid-19 pandemic has left refugees and their families anxious and in the dark.

They are calling on Jacinda Ardern’s government to take action and lay out a plan to support some of the world’s most vulnerable people, in a way that is keeping with its rhetoric around kindness and compassion.

The calls for clarity and leadership come as the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) urges nations to find safe ways to welcome and resettle refugees – many of who are trapped in refugee camps, where they are vulnerable to the virus due to little access to sanitation, appropriate healthcare or vaccines.

New data from UNHCR shows refugee resettlement hit a record low in 2020, due to Covid-19.

Despite an estimated 1.44 million refugees being in urgent need of resettlement globally, only 22,770 were resettled through UNHCR last year. Meanwhile, the number of displaced people continues to grow.

In March 2020, the UNHCR and the International Organization of Migration​ (IOM) suspended resettlement departures for refugees as part efforts to stop the spread of Covid-19.

And on March 13, New Zealand’s last intake arrived, before the refugee quota programme was suspended.

This suspension, meant the country did not meet its recently increased quota of 1000 places in the 2019/2020 financial year. instead, a total of 797 refugees were resettled.

In July 2020, the quota increased to 1500 for the current financial year. Again, this number will not be met.

Outside of the quota programme, the Government paused its visa allocations under the family reunification category, which allows resettled refugees’ family members join them.

There are 300 places available in this category, and from July 2021 that will increase to 600. In the 2019/2020 financial year, only 122 of these spots were used.

An Immigration New Zealand (INZ) spokesperson said again the threshold may not be reached this year.

Despite lobbying from the community, INZ and the minister have said these unused slots will not be transferred to the next financial year; they will be lost, and the number of people waiting in the queue will continue to grow.

In August, the UNHCR announced the resumption of resettlements to countries with appropriate capacity, processes and safe travel routes in place. 

Since then, the global refugee organisation has pleaded with countries to find strategies and pathways to welcome refugees and support asylum seekers.

“Just because we have a pandemic, doesn’t mean the global refugee crisis is over.” – Guled Mire, refugee advocate

In October, New Zealand agreed to accept a small number of refugee cases identified by the UNHCR as emergency priority, and to prioritise three cases under the refugee family reunification category.

The INZ spokesperson said emergency cases were those who required immediate protection through resettlement, due to reasons such as an immediate life-threatening situation, deportation, detention or imprisonment.

By January 26, a total of 50 people had arrived in New Zealand under these emergency priorities. A further six people were being considered under emergency priority.

While those in the community are welcoming the small number of cases that have been processed under the emergency category, they say more needs to be done to support vulnerable refugee communities in New Zealand, and those waiting in refugee camps around the world.

Those who spoke to Newsroom suggested in the absence of a full-scale resettlement programme, the Government could do things like commit more funding to supporting refugees in camps, fully supporting and processing asylum claims of those already in the country, making sure visa and case processing is fit-for-purpose, and looking to set aside MIQ places for refugees either within existing MIQ facilities or at the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre.

But thus far, there has been a dearth of information about other ways the Government is meeting its international humanitarian commitments.

And no clear plan about when and how the country’s resettlement programme will resume.

Those who spoke to Newsroom said the lack of information had led to anxiety and uncertainty among people who are already facing significant hardship.

And while discussions between the minister, INZ, UNHCR and stakeholders are ongoing, the outcome of those conversations have not yet been made public.

Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi said he hoped there would be developments from those ongoing discussions soon.

Former refugee and community advocate Guled Mire says the Government needs to back up its rhetoric of kindness and compassion with action and policy. Photo: UNHCR/Susan Hopper

Former refugee and community advocate Guled Mire said he understood the difficulties Covid-19 presented for the refugee resettlement programme, and New Zealand did the right thing in closing its borders and prioritising citizens’ health, but it was time to start planning for the future.

“I’m not saying that we open our borders right now and resume our refugee programme to the fullest extent, no, I’m not saying that…

“I think what is needed is a clear pathway, in terms of how we are going to be able to fulfil our commitments in that space.”

New Zealanders should be asking what other ways they could help, Mire said.

“Just because we have a pandemic, doesn’t mean that the global refugee crisis is over… Violence is still happening, people are being forced to leave their place. 

“Imagine that you have to flee right now, in the middle of a pandemic, from your country,” he said.

“For refugees around the world, now’s the time I’d like to see a little bit more compassion, kindness, for the most vulnerable people that are being impacted right now by this pandemic.”

These calls are set against the backdrop of a hard-fought campaign to lift the refugee quota, after many years of a stagnant quota system, which was falling further behind other comparable countries’ per capita commitments.

Then in 2019 – in the wake of the terrorist attack that resulted in the death of 51 Muslims, including former refugees – the Government was pressured to finally scrap the discriminatory ‘family link’ category, which barred refugees from Africa and the Middle East, unless they had a family connection to New Zealand. 

Mire said it was time for the Government to show leadership.

“The most difficult thing in the midst of all of this is that our policy doesn’t add up with the rhetoric and the way that we like to portray ourselves as a nation.

“When it comes to refugee issues, generally, everything we do feeds into that whole virtue signalling; that we are a kind and compassionate society, when really we’re not. We make it so tough for people to get into New Zealand.”

“If the public rhetoric is so harsh towards returning Kiwis right now… forget about refugees.” – Guled Mire

Mire, and others who spoke to Newsroom, said it was hard to have a constructive conversation about welcoming refugees under the current circumstances.

There was no public appetite or support for bringing in refugees when New Zealand citizens were struggling to make it home, due to the restrictions on international travel and the lack of MIQ places.

“I have to have a lot of hope in everything that I do; that’s important in my advocacy. But I really don’t have hope, at this moment, that our Government will showcase leadership on this issue,” Mire said.

“I feel like we’ve made the bar so high for our very own citizens to be able to come back home. And if the public rhetoric is so harsh towards returning Kiwis right now, in this current pandemic, forget about refugees. Are you kidding me?”

While Mire acknowledged it was currently hard to justify the intake of non-Kiwis, he said it was important talk about the issue and the policy going forward.

“I understand current circumstances are pressing and challenging, but we can’t completely turn a blind eye and then at the same time, turn around and portray ourselves as this very kind and compassionate country.”

Foremer refugee, and MP, Golriz Ghahraman says the Green Party is fighting for fairer allocation of border resources for those who fall into humanitarian categories. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Green Party refugee spokesperson, and former refugee, Golriz Ghahraman said the Green Party had made it clear to Labour that they must prioritise humanitarian categories for the purpose of entry into New Zealand, rather than commercial interests, once controlled border entry is possible. 

Those groups must include migrant families separated as a result of border closures and refugees. 

“We will continue to fight for fairer allocation of border resources for those groups,” she said.

The Red Cross’s Rachel O’Connor recently made similar comments to Stuff

Economic migrants were currently allocated 10 percent of MIQ places. O’Connor said even a 1 percent allocation for humanitarian cases would save lives.

Ghahraman said the Green Party was proud of doubling Aotearoa’s refugee quota and reuniting more displaced families, but as a responsible global citizen, New Zealand must begin to implement those changes by resettling refugees urgently. 

“We feel the community anxiety caused by the lack of information about when the resettlement programme can start again – this hardship of displacement is now redoubled by the imminent threat of Covid-19 as families wait.”

The Government owed those communities far more clarity, she said.

“We can’t afford to let our most marginalised suffer the worst of this pandemic, because that will mean we have failed as a global community to rise out of this crisis.” – Golriz Ghahraman

Ghahraman also said the Government should be looking to find ways to support refugees outside of the normal processes, and said the Green Party favoured using the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre as a managed isolation facility for resettled refugees – a process that could e urgently activated.

Short of restarting refugee resettlement, the country’s humanitarian aid programme could expand to support sanitation, PPE, and vaccination of refugees, she said.

Beyond that, the Government must use its voice to push for global equality, like cancelling third world debt, supporting peace movements, and divesting from war industries, Ghahraman said.

“What Covid-19 has taught us is that in order to make it through shared crises, we must take care of all of us. That includes refugees, who have already suffered huge harm, and who have been displaced from their homes by persecution and war. 

“They are the communities most vulnerable to the virus, trapped in refugee camps with little access to sanitation, appropriate health care and the vaccine,” she said.

“We can’t afford to let our most marginalised suffer the worst of this pandemic, because that will mean we have failed as a global community to rise out of this crisis.”

An INZ spokesperson echoed the minister’s comments that they were having ongoing discussions about how and when the quota programme would resume.

Once the quota has resumed, refugee arrival numbers and nationalities would be dependent on international border restrictions and safe travel and transit arrangements to New Zealand.

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