Govt scraps discriminatory policy for Africa, Middle East refugees

A New Zealand refugee policy described as racist by critics has been abolished, to the delight of many - but advocates say there is still more the Government could and should be doing.

The Government has finally scrapped heavy restrictions on the intake of refugees from Africa and the Middle East, with advocates hailing the decision but suggesting there is more progress to be made.

Unveiling New Zealand’s three-year refugee quota policy on Friday, Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway confirmed an end to the controversial “family link” policy.

The policy was introduced in 2009 under the former government and required refugees from the Middle East or Africa to have a pre-existing family connection to New Zealand.

The Government has also announced a slight increase to the overall proportion of refugees who can come from the two regions, up from 14 percent to 15 percent.

Wellington-based Muslim community advocate Guled Mire told Newsroom he was “ecstatic” following the policy reversal, which was a victory for people power, but he noted the change had taken much longer than many had expected.

“This is a policy that has been maintained for over a decade, we’ve been basically stopping people from the most vulnerable places in the world from having the right to live life with dignity...

“Sadly, it’s taken a national tragedy for us to have a serious conversation about why this policy needs to be scrapped.”

Mire, a Somali refugee who spent time in a Kenyan refugee camp, said he was thrilled that people like himself would now be given a second chance at life.

However, the decision to increase the Africa and Middle East allocation by only one percentage point seemed contradictory given the regions had the highest levels of need in the world.

“There’s no question that we should be playing a part in the Asia-Pacific regional focus,that has never been an issue…

“Are those numbers proportionate? I don’t think so. Could we do a bit better and be a bit more fair? One hundred percent.” 

Guled Mire says the Government could still be doing more for refugees from Africa and the Middle East. Photo: UNHCR/Susan Hopper

Mire will attend the world’s first Global Refugee Forum in Geneva this December, and said the Government now had a chance to lead the world in the support it provided for refugees and provide a broader sense of hope.

Murdoch Stephens, founder of the Doing Our Bit campaign to double New Zealand’s refugee quota, said he was relieved by the Government’s decision but had mixed feelings given the imposition of the “very racist" policy in the first place.

“This is how it should have been - I felt like we were fighting a rearguard action against racism...it’s a bit sad to reflect where this actually came from.”

Stephens said the changes would likely take some time to flow through into the refugee and migrant system, with Immigration NZ officials now tasked with interviewing prospective candidates for resettlement from those regions.

The decision to increase the allocation for refugees from Africa and the Middle East by only a small amount was “tough”, but there was demand in the Asia-Pacific region such as from the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar.

“The African numbers from the last nine years, combined, are the same as the one year before this policy came in...we’ll never know the people who would have been given a second chance at life, we just shut the door.”

While the increase appeared small, Stephens said in reality the family link provisions had meant that only one to two percent of the overall quota had come from Africa and the Middle East, whereas the new 15 percent figure was likely to be fully subscribed.

“The African numbers from the last nine years, combined, are the same as the one year before this policy came in...we’ll never know the people who would have been given a second chance at life, we just shut the door.”

However, most New Zealanders were unlikely to notice the change, given the new figure was still only half of the 30 percent that had come from Africa and the Middle East in the past.

Stephens said there were still areas for improvement, such as an expansion of the community sponsorship pilot programme for refugees and an increase in the number of family reunification places.

Advocates were also waiting to see whether Australia would change its position on the New Zealand offer to resettle some refugees from Manus and Nauru, with Stephens saying the Australian government had pledged to reconsider the offer after its deal with the United States was finished later this year.

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