NZ’s treatment of refugees an election issue

Imagine you suddenly get news that you and your loved ones are unsafe; that unless you leave your home in the next 10 minutes you risk persecution, detention or worse. What would you take with you? Where would you go? How would you get there?

Around the world, 65.6 million people have faced this kind of unthinkable dilemma and been forced to flee their homes, their loved ones and the fabric of their daily lives. It is the highest number of such people in recorded history. The number of them seeking refuge across international borders has this year reached 22.5 million.

Such numbers are unfathomable. Yet they could explain the dominant geopolitical fearmongering about refugees in the 37 resettlement countries, if it weren’t for the sobering fact that these countries resettle less than 1 percent of the world’s refugees. The other 99 percent are left to survive for an average of 17 years in camps, mostly in one of 10 ‘developing’ countries in the Middle East and Africa neighbouring the sites of conflicts producing refugees in the first place.

Here in New Zealand, there is a common perception we are punching above our weight in the resettlement game. Over 33,000 quota refugees from more than 25 countries have been resettled since World War II and New Zealand’s resettlement scheme is well-regarded internationally.

That said, the recently increased quota (from 750 to 1000 per year) still only represents the resettlement of 0.0044 percent of the world’s 22.5 million. Moreover, ongoing inequalities exist within the resettlement process, with those seeking asylum outside of United Nations-designated channels denied equal support. 

With rising concerns over resource use in New Zealand, exemplified by debates about neo-colonialism and breaches of the Treaty, the housing crisis, child poverty and the sale of fresh water, it is perhaps not surprising that raising the quota, and refugee resettlement in general, has become an election issue. Critics argue we need to look after ‘our own’ before accepting ‘foreign’ others. There is concern about the drain former refugees may place on our services.

At Victoria University of Wellington, the Network to Support Refugee-Background Students has been working over the last decade to question common stereotypes and advance better understanding about resettling refugees in New Zealand.

So, on September 11, as we remember atrocities born of prejudice, suffering and inequality, I ask you to consider that if you had been forced to leave your home then resettle in a new country and find ways to support your family, how would you want to be thought of and treated?

Informed by the first New Zealand participatory research into refugee-background students’ experiences carried out at Victoria in 2006, the first nationwide project with ChangeMakers Refugee Forum involving 13 tertiary institutes in 2011, and ongoing annual projects, the Network has enabled greater recognition of these students, provoked policy changes at several universities across the country, and stimulated discussions within the Ministry of Education.

At Victoria, we have enabled refugee-background students to be recognised as an equity group alongside Māori, Pasifika and disabled students, and have established more culturally diverse and inclusive learner-centred initiatives.

Contrary to popular rhetoric, such initiatives have not come at the expense of other students or cost vast amounts of money. With creative collaboration, modest institutional support and active student involvement, we have been able to focus our expertise economically to enrich learning opportunities and enhance awareness and understanding.

From my professional experience, I can also state unequivocally that refugee-background students (and the families and communities from which they come) contribute far more to New Zealand than they consume.

They passionately value education, frequently express a desire to contribute positively to this country, and demonstrate a humility and maturity born of years of struggle. They have linguistic, artistic and political abilities that are valuable in our increasingly interconnected world. And they are often active volunteers, employees, entrepreneurs and leaders. For example, two of our current students are the President and Vice-President of the New Zealand National Refugee Youth Council. The fact they founded this organisation while studying full-time speaks volumes. That they also work through the Council to build confidence and capacity among former refugee youth across the country and regularly represent New Zealand at the UN in Geneva is something that should be welcomed, celebrated and supported.

So, on September 11, as we remember atrocities born of prejudice, suffering and inequality, I ask you to consider that if you had been forced to leave your home then resettle in a new country and find ways to support your family, how would you want to be thought of and treated? As a drain and burden on your new society, or as a welcome and capable member?

In this election, we can encourage our politicians to do more to honour refugee rights internationally. But perhaps more importantly, and regardless of the election, we can make and take opportunities every day to enable former refugees in our workplaces and communities to participate and succeed.

Associate Professor Sara Kindon will be facilitating a panel discussion on refugee issues at 5.30pm on Monday 11 September, Lecture Theatre 1, Government Buildings, Faculty of Law, Pipitea Campus, Victoria University of Wellington, 55 Lambton Quay.

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