Fixing New Zealand's 'dismal' refugee figures

Source: AAP

- By Boris Jancic

Golriz Ghahraman

As global refugee numbers surge and some nations close their doors, New Zealand is looking to double its quota.

Yet some are asking whether it'll be enough to make up for a "dismal" intake that's barely grown in decades.

Despite its reputation for openness and a running debate about its record-high immigration levels, New Zealand's recent refugee figures are modest compared to Australia and Canada.

It took in just over 1000 refugees last year, compared to about 24,000 across the ditch. Since World War II, it's resettled a total of 33,000.

While there's some debate about the differences in refugee selection processes and support, New Zealand's 2017 intake was less than a quarter of Australia per capita.

But the Kiwi quota was last year raised for the first time since 1987, from 750 to 1000.

And lifting it again, to 1500, has been a standing promise by Jacinda Ardern's Labour Party for its first term.

Last week, ministers announced the reinstatement of Christchurch as a resettlement location, in a bid to increase capacity.

"It's a start, but it's definitely not enough," Green Party MP Golriz Ghahraman, herself an asylum seeker as a child, says.

Her party is calling for the number to be raised to 6000 over five years, to place New Zealand between Canada and Australia.

"I think we've ridden that wave of a perception of New Zealand that's idealised in the world," she says.

"Also we're so far away ... people aren't trying to swim across as they are in the Mediterranean and dying on our beaches.

"But they are dying on beaches - it's just that we haven't felt it."

Murdoch Stevens, who in 2013 founded the campaign to double the quota and has recently authored a book on the subject, says New Zealand's multiculturalism has seen locals wrongly assume the country has a high intake.

He says that, while the raw numbers don't tell the whole story about the quality of New Zealand's refugee program, it's a matter of balance.

"New Zealand has prided itself on not cherry-picking the most capable, educated or well-off refugees ... [but] in my opinion the focus on the most vulnerable in our refugee quota does not makes up for our dismal historical record," Dr Stevens says.

"Is it really such a big ask - to be on the same footing as Australia?

"No one is arguing for New Zealand to become a world leader, but just doing our bit."

Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway says constraints - particularly a housing crisis - make 1500 a realistic and ambitious refugee quota.

But he hopes future governments won't take decades to lift it again.

"We need to be able to settle people well," Mr Lees-Galloway says.

He says Kiwis do care about the issue, and points out the program takes on vulnerable and high-needs people who may not be accepted elsewhere.

The Red Cross, now the country's leading resettlement provider, says it wants policies that are more responsive to global demands, with the number of those needing urgent resettlement doubling in the past four years.

"The humanitarian needs are so significant at the moment," national migration program manager Rachel O'Connor says.

But she says New Zealand's resettlement program has a long and proud history, and a successful record - one that's made possible by the country's welcoming attitudes.

And it's those attitudes that mean there's capacity to do more, she says.

"What we see time and time again is that what makes the difference is how people get that sense of belonging in their communities."