Cross-Examination: New Zealand's Questionable Commitment to Refugee Settlement

Ari Apa, Content Contributor

Earlier this year, New Zealand’s Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy spoke out about New Zealand’s minimal efforts to alleviate the current global refugee crisis.[1] New Zealand is a signatory to the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees. New Zealand has assented to be bound by the Convention, and had adopted the principles underpinning the Convention through the Immigration Act 2009.[2] Under the Convention, New Zealand has accepted an annual quota of 750 refugees from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for resettlement in our country. This figure has remained virtually stagnant since its inception in the 1980s, despite the greatly increased levels of conflict worldwide since the end of the Cold War. The question of whether New Zealand can and should increase this number has been an important subject of discussion over the years, and has become ever more salient in recent years due to the still-growing current humanitarian crisis in Syria — giving rise to pleas for an urgent increase of the quota.


Placing New Zealand’s effort in a global context allows us to see that there is a real and urgent need for New Zealand to do more. We are currently faced with one of the greatest displacements of people in modern history. By the end of 2013, the UNHCR reported that 51.2 million individuals were forcibly displaced as a result of persecution, conflict, generalized violence or human rights violations.[3] Of these, 16.7 million people were refugees, 33.3 million were internally displaced in their own country, and close to 1.2 million were asylum seekers.[4] The conflict in Syria alone has forced 3.8 million refugees to seek shelter in just five countries (Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt). [5] A third of these people are children.[6]


The 2014 UNHCR Asylum Trends Report showed that, of industrialized countries, those that received the most number of asylum claims in 2014 were Germany, USA, Turkey, Sweden and Italy — and these accounted for 60% of all asylum claims.[7] These asylum claims are not being spread evenly among the 44 countries covered by the Report (which included Europe, North America, and parts of Asia-Pacific including New Zealand).[8] In addition to the Refugee Quota Programme, New Zealand also receives an average of 300 asylum claims per year, a figure that has remained low and stable over the past decade.[9] Approximately one third to a half of these claims are approved.[10]

New Zealand is a small country, so of course we should accept smaller numbers overall. However, even on a per capita basis, New Zealand ranks poorly when it comes to hosting refugees — ranking 88th in the world by the UNHCR.[11] Australia’s asylum policies are widely criticized, but the Australian government aims to host 4.7 times as many refugees per capita as New Zealand.[12] This huge disparity is harmful, showing that the current way of dealing with refugees is obviously not working. Even as we speak, the numbers of people seeking refuge continue to rise as the violence in Syria and the Middle East continues, creating a huge strain on neighboring countries and other major refugee-receiving countries in other parts of the world.


Despite our commitment to the Refugee Commitment, New Zealand is making no efforts to respond to the refugee crisis at all, while countries like Lebanon and Turkey, who have not even signed onto the Refugee Convention, are bearing most of this burden. New Zealand escapes the impact of mass refugee arrivals by virtue of mere geographic position, but this does not exempt us from playing our part in the global effort to share the burden and responsibility of the protection of displaced peoples — a part we agreed to play when we signed onto the Convention in 1987.

The Refugee Convention

The Refugee Convention is a human rights document. Refugee status under the Convention is declaratory, meaning that any person who leaves their country for fear of persecution immediately becomes a rights-holder as a refugee under the Convention. In other words, signatory states have an obligation to respect rights granted to refugees under the Convention by virtue of their being a refugee. The nature of these rights concern integration into host States and achieving self-sufficiency for refugees. The drafters of the document recognized that the Convention can only work to achieve these aims if there is cooperation among States.[13] Currently, there is no strategy for sharing the responsibility for refugees. Even the policies of EU Member States differ wildly, a surprising fact given the way the EU strives for more legal unity.[14] Every country has come up with policies on an ad hoc basis, resulting in a system with too many holes in it — and refugees are paying the price.

The way refugees are treated and resettled across the world would look dramatically different if states took the Convention seriously. A single global system with refugee rights at the heart of it would allow states to more effectively share the responsibility and burdens related to resettling refugees. A system that played to the strengths of every state would ensure that every refugee is protected somewhere. This crisis is not something that a single state should be expected to tackle on its own — the Refugee Convention is designed for states to work together, and any part New Zealand plays should be seen in this light.

Every country has come up with policies on an ad hoc basis, resulting in a system with too many holes in it — and refugees are paying the price.

What would this look like for New Zealand?

In defense of the Government’s decision to send troops to Iraq, John Key claimed that “we are a country that stands up for human rights”.[15] However, sending troops to fight the war rather than providing resettlement to asylum seekers does not quite live up to this statement. New Zealand has taken its place as a world leader on the United Nations Security Council, a position it vied for — do we deserve to be respected as a defender of human rights and international law if we sit by and do nothing at such a time as this? Dame Susan Devoy has addressed this, stating that our seat on the Security Council means we have a responsibility as an international citizen to do more for the refugees from crisis zones.[16] This would mean accepting refugees specifically from Syria and Iraq in response to the crisis there, and increasing our quota generally, to at least 1,000. Organizations like Amnesty International and Red Cross have been campaigning vigorously to achieve this outcome.

In defense of the Government’s decision to send troops to Iraq, John Key claimed that “we are a country that stands up for human rights”. However, sending troops to fight the war rather than providing resettlement to asylum seekers does not quite live up to this statement.

One concern over increasing the quota is that it may have the effect of diminishing the effectiveness of our current refugee resettlement programme, which is a very good one. Every intake of refugees spend their first six weeks at the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre. The refugees go through an orientation program as well as physical and mental health checks. Once they have left the Centre, refugees are supported by Red Cross Refugee Services who assign each refugee or family a social worker, cross-cultural worker, and volunteer support workers to assist them for their first 12 months in New Zealand. This support includes providing assistance with bank accounts, Work and Income benefits, enrolment in schools, IRD numbers, housing and furniture, and most importantly, providing friendship and moral support. Currently, refugees are resettled in only five communities around the country: Auckland, Waikato, Manawatu, Wellington and Nelson.[17] Since the earthquake, Christchurch has been unable to take refugees. There are many more cities in New Zealand capable of taking in refugees for resettlement: for example Dame Susan Devoy has called for Rotorua to establish a refugee programme.

Some may claim that increasing the quota will create a strain on the resources currently allocated to refugee resettlement in New Zealand, and lessen the quality of support provided to refugees once they arrive in the country. However, this argument is unconvincing, especially given the gravity of our current global crisis. Right now what is needed is an urgent action to provide refugees and asylum seekers a place that will welcome them and guarantee their safety. The impact on our resettlement programme can be worked out as we go, but it is not a good enough excuse to deny more refugees entry to our country. Furthermore, implementing a more globalized resettlement initiative as proposed above would lessen strains on any single country, as we share the effort involved in resettling refugees.

Increasing our quota would be a good start to showing the world that we are willing to pull our weight on behalf of the world’s most desperate people, and bolstering our reputation as a humanitarian leader.



[1] TV 3's 'The Nation' "On the Nation: Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy" (press release, 21 March 2015). [2] Immigration Act 2009, s 3(2)(g) [3] UNHCR “Wars in Syria and Iraq Drive Highest Asylum Numbers in 22 Years” (Press Release, 26 March 2015). [4] UNHCR [5] UNHCR [6] "Get involved in our #OpenToSyria campaign" Amnesty International <>. [7] UNHCR Asylum Trends Report 2014: Levels and Trends in Industrialised Countries (26 March 2015) UNHCR at 10–12. [8] At 12. [9] At 20. [10] J Marlowe and S Elliot, “Global trends and refugee settlement in New Zealand” (2014) 9 Kotuitui: New Zealand Journal of Social Sciences Online 60 at 63–69. [11] Murdoch Stephens "Misery Refugee intake shows New Zealand has to do more" The Dominion Post (online ed, New Zealand, 9 May 2015). [12] Stephens. [13] Convention on the Status of Refugees 189 UNTS 137 (entered into force 22 April 1954), preamble. [14] Ian Traynor "Mediterranean refugee crisis: EU reduced to impotent handwringing" The Guardian (online ed, United Kingdom, 20 April 2015). [15] Doing Our Bit "Key to send troops to Iraq but won't budge on refugee ban" (press release, 6 February 2015). [16] TV 3's 'The Nation', above n 1. [17] "Resettlement Programme" New Zealand Red Cross . The views expressed in the posts and comments of this blog do not necessarily reflect those of the Equal Justice Project. They should be understood as the personal opinions of the author. No information on this blog will be understood as official. The Equal Justice Project makes no representations as to the accuracy or completeness of any information on this site or found by following any link on this site. The Equal Justice Project will not be liable for any errors or omissions in this information nor for the availability of this information.