Refugee quota win-win investment

While we have countries that are busy building walls and strewing their borders with barbed wire, the Government has just agreed to increase its annual refugee to 1500 people starting in 2020. This is a welcome commitment and one that we should celebrate because it represents an important step in recognising our role in responding to the global forced migration crisis, writes Jay Marlowe. 

Soon after this news was announced, a National Party press release was issued claiming that in New Zealand “it costs around $100,000 per person per year to properly settle refugees”. This sensationalist statement was picked up by a number of journalists and reported in mainstream media.

But this claim and subsequent media reporting is misleading. 

Asking for clarification and confirmation, the associated ministry informed me the $100,000 costing was established in 2016 for 1000 refugees over three years. It includes the costs for refugee specific services (reception, settlement support, etc) and the mainstream services (health, welfare, education, housing, etc), which would be the same for many New Zealanders.     

Further, the number also fails to recognise and consider the contributions that refugees can and do make. 

The fact is, we are well-equipped and prepared for this welcome. We have eight current resettlement locations across New Zealand with associated supports to help newly-arrived people integrate and craft a new sense of home and belonging. Our settlement programme is recognised as world-leading.

The debate about the place of refugees in New Zealand came to a head two weeks ago at the Pacific Islands Forum when Deputy PM Winston Peters declared the Government had not committed to doubling the refugee quota to 1500 people and said:

"I can show you parts of Hokianga and elsewhere, parts of Northland, where people are living in degradation. We have to fix their lives up as well before we start taking on new obligations."

There are two principal issues with Peters’ statement.  

One, addressing matters of social justice does not need to be a choice between options. It is about deciding what commitments we are willing to sign up to and stand for. Secondly, it positions refugees as a burden on society as ‘fact’.  

However, in actual fact, looking at the long term, evidence suggests otherwise.  

Esteemed economist Phillipe Legrain has accessed International Monetary Fund data to show that investing one euro in refugees can yield a two euros return within five years. This is because refugees can deliver a number of dividends to society that would not otherwise be realised through the skills, innovation, work ethic and entrepreneurial spirit they bring.  

Several of Australia’s billionaires are either former refugees or are the children of parents who were. The co-founder of Google and the Chief Technology Officer of Uber are from refugee backgrounds. Mitchell Pham, an unaccompanied minor from Vietnam, came to New Zealand in the mid-1980s. Roughly ten years later, he co-founded an international company called Augen Software that employs 40 people to find innovative business solutions through technology. On multiple talks about his experience, he characterises it as “born in Vietnam and made in New Zealand”.

Yet, acknowledging these dividends and the possibilities are difficult when fear campaigns about refugees are mounted.  If we take a step back, it is easy to see how understandings of refugees in many international debates has shifted the focus on refugees being ‘at risk’ to ‘a risk’.  

Alongside concerns of safety and security, the short term costs of resettling refugees is part of the bread and butter of the anti-immigrant platform suggesting that ‘our’ ways of life will forever be lost.  While such statements are compelling as a 15-second sound bite on television, radio and social media – the reality is that these claims hold little substance.

During the 2016 US presidential campaign, Donald Trump Junior sent a tweet that suggested refugees were dangerous by comparing them to a bowl of skittles (a type of lolly) and said:

"If I had a bowl of skittles and I told you just three would kill you, would you take a handful? That’s our Syrian refugee problem."

While this tweet was instantly retweeted as ‘fact’ across the country, analysis of true ratios suggests you would need to eat about 50 of these a minute for 130 years to get to one dangerous lolly. If safety and security are the concern, the focus on resettling refugees is barking up the wrong tree.

The US has since halved its 2017 refugee intake from the previous year. It has just announced its intention to further reduce it to a historic low in 2019.  This moral panic about refugees can be seen across Europe, South America, Australia and elsewhere.

It is not my intent to gloss over the challenges (and costs) of settling people in a new country. It is true that supporting someone to settle in a new country where they often have to learn a new language, navigate multiple systems and recreate a sense of belonging can take time and represent a significant financial investment.  

But shifting our thinking about refugees as ‘a risk’ or ‘at risk’ to a potential opportunity opens new possibilities that can mean positive benefits not only for New Zealand’s most recent arrivals, but also for its current citizens. And yes, in the long term, providing such a welcome may prove to be one of the greatest investments that our society (and the tax payer) can make.

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