Foreign Affairs

Campaign to scrap discriminatory refugee restrictions

As the Government reviews its refugee policy, refugee leaders and advocacy organisations are calling for an end to the ‘family link’ restriction imposed on those from Africa and the Middle East.

A leader in the refugee community says the type of thinking behind the decision to heavily restrict the intake of refugees from Africa and the Middle East is the same logic that led to the events of March 15.

This Wednesday, the Education and Workforce Select Committee will hear submissions on a petition to do away with the ‘family link’ policy, which the immigration minister has admitted is discriminatory.

The policy was introduced in 2009, under the former government, and requires any refugees coming from the Middle East or Africa to have an existing family connection to New Zealand.

While some refugees from the Middle East have been brought in under emergency intakes, including those from Syria, the overall intake from the two regions, particularly Africa, has been heavily affected by the policy.

This has resulted in New Zealand’s refugee quota being heavily weighted towards refugees from the Asia Pacific Region, and the Americas. While these regions had needs, they are not necessarily the areas in greatest need.

More than half (57 percent) of the world’s 25.9 million refugees come from three countries, which are all situated in the Middle East and African regions: Syria (6.7m), Afghanistan (2.7m) and South Sudan (2.3m).

The policy has also seen New Zealand fail to meet its refugee targets for Africa (14 percent) and the Middle East (14 percent) in the past decade.

Guled Mire said the policy was put in place to stop people like himself from coming to New Zealand. Photo: UNHCR/Susan Hopper

Somali refugee, and chief executive of NGO Third Culture Minds, Guled Mire has been outspoken in his opposition to the policy, which he describes as racist.

“The policy was put in place to stop people like me from coming here,” he said.

“It was never done with our best intentions at heart. We know that.”

MBIE’s briefing to the select committee said the previous government thought the policy would maintain an avenue for family reunification for refugees in New Zealand from the Africa and Middle East regions.

“However, in practice, refugees from the Africa and Middle East regions who are in New Zealand have the same opportunity to reunify with family members as all other quota refugees.”

Briefings to former immigration minister Michael Woodhouse also describe it as “overly restrictive”.

However, the family reunification reasoning is inconsistent with the common understanding of why the policy was implemented. And some have called it disingenuous.

Experts in the sector do not have a full understanding of the exact reason for the policy, as a lot of the information in official briefings and papers has been redacted.

However, analysis of documents released under the Official Information Act found three main reasons for the implementation of the policy: the first was cost savings as it was cheaper to settle refugees coming from the Asia Pacific region; the second was the political appetite to help regional partners like Australia in taking refugees from Asia Pacific and the Americas.

The third is described as “broad security concerns”. Further research has been fruitless, with all details about the so-called security concerns being redacted from official documents. However, experts see that as the most significant driver for the policy.

“That thinking and logic led to March 15,” Mire said.

The framing of those from some regions as posing a specific security risk has become even more publicly unpalatable in the wake of the murder of 51 Muslims in Christchurch, earlier in the year.

“This is not in line with that compassionate kindness rhetoric we’ve been talking about," he said.

While the three-year review of refugee policy review is delayed Jacinda Ardern, Iain Lees-Galloway and Winston Peters have remained tight-lipped. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Mire was also critical of the Prime Minister's lack of leadership on this issue.

While Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway has acknowledged the policy is discriminatory, he remains tight-lipped on what changes he would like to see.

The latest from his office is that the outcome of the three-year review of refugee policy was about six weeks away. However, previous timeframes had come and gone - it was first due in June.

The minister said he was discussing the issues with his Cabinet and coalition colleagues, and hoped he would announce the new three-year plan before the end of the year.

When asked about the policy last month, Foreign Minister Winston Peters also said the country would have to wait for the outcome of the review, but said thus far, he had not seen any compelling evidence to remove the restriction.

While New Zealand First supported the increase to the refugee quota, it's widely believed Peters is partly to blame for delays in the policy review.

The battle is personal

Mire has become a well-known advocate and activist in the refugee and Muslim community since March. And this one is a personal fight for him.

Mire said he did not plan to hold back in his submission to the select committee on Tuesday.

“Because for me, I think about having gone through being a refugee myself... I think about little Guled, who was six years old, living in a refugee camp.”

“I think it would be a complete shame not to use the privileges I have, to help others, like little Guled, stuck in a refugee camp in Kenya.”

With the refugee crisis ongoing, and no end in sight, Mire said he saw it as his obligation to raise awareness and use his position to fight for others to have opportunities.

“I am here because of the brave decisions and sacrifices my family made. 

"I have a duty to help others, we all do because refugees do not leave their home countries because they want to, they are facing enormous hardships and take significant risks to leave. We should be doing everything we can to help those who most need it, our current settings do not allow for this.”

He thought about his six-year-old self in a refugee camp in Africa.

“I think it would be a complete shame not to use the privileges I have, to help others, like little Guled, stuck in a refugee camp in Kenya.”

Ignoring the greatest need

Amnesty International NZ acting executive director Meg de Ronde also backs the call to dump the policy, saying New Zealand is not prioritising those with the greatest need, as the UNHCR expects.

“Post-Christchurch, there’s been an enormous out-pouring of love for the Muslim community in New Zealand, and the iteration that they’re just as much whānau as any group in New Zealand.

“I would have thought it would be time for those words to be made a reality.”

The Government has pushed back on any suggestion the policy was anti-Muslim. Over 68 percent of New Zealand’s refugees came from Muslim majority countries last year.

The person behind the petition, Carsten Bockemuehl is the World Vision advocacy and campaign lead for the Pacific and Timor-Leste, and says this restriction undermines the humanitarian aspect of the refugee quota.

“I would argue it’s not consistent with our desire to be a good global citizen because our quota currently does not reflect the global displacement and resettlement needs.”

The restriction made it very difficult for people from Africa and the Middle East to resettle in New Zealand, for those without family here, it wasn’t even a pipe dream, he said.

The idea that people from the Middle East and Africa posed security concerns was “tragic and inappropriate”.

All refugees had to go through the United Nations vetting process, meaning there was no greater risk associated with specific regions.

“It’s very concerning to stigmatise and point to refugees from two world regions as a higher security risk than other people.”

Post the Christchurch attacks, a lot of people would consider this the wrong thing to do.

“I would argue it’s not consistent with our desire to be a good global citizen because our quota currently does not reflect the global displacement and resettlement needs.”

'Trumpish rhetoric'

Green MP and refugee Golriz Ghahraman described the talk of security concerns as “the type of Trumpish rhetoric that came about as a result of the war on terror”.

“The policy is absolutely discriminatory,” she said.

“There’s absolutely no reason why refugees who happen to be in Africa or the Middle East should be excluded from our quota. That is where the most need is at the moment.

“So if we have a principled-based approach to need, and who’s at most risk of violence and persecution, we would remove the family link requirement."

The confusing $25m spend

All those who spoke to Newsroom raised issues with the Government’s decision to spend $25m in this year’s budget on preventing people being smuggled to New Zealand by boat.

The Government said the new money was targeted at keeping people safe, and preventing them from attempting a treacherous journey by boat to New Zealand.

Lees-Galloway said it was important to ensure there were legitimate pathways for resettlement, in order to stop people engaging with people smugglers and making risky journeys.

However, critics of the Government’s family link policy said it had effectively closed a legitimate resettlement pathway, which incentivised people to use unsafe options.

Green MP Golriz Ghahraman has long campaigned against the policy, and says the idea that people from some countries are a greater security concern was part of the 'Trumpish rhetoric' that resulted from the war on terror. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Amnesty International’s de Ronde said she was concerned about Australia’s influence on the refugee narrative in this part of the world.

De Ronde and Ghahraman both made the point that seeking asylum was a fundamental human right, and that could be done at a UN-mandated refugee camp, or at a border. For New Zealand, that meant by ocean.

Restricting legitimate pathways to resettlement and also cracking down on people smuggling would not stop people finding ways to flee countries where they were unsafe, de Ronde said, adding that if anything it would make them more desperate.

Australia’s decision to crack down on people smuggling and asylum seekers in the region had not eliminated the issue; it had  moved it elsewhere.

And Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers was “an absolute stain on their reputation”, de Ronde said.

Those who spoke to Newsroom called for the Government to remove the family link restriction for refugees from the Middle East and Africa, and release the outcome of the three-year refugee strategy as soon as possible.

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