Covid no longer an excuse for lack of action on refugees – advocate

New Zealand is not meeting its international humanitarian commitments when it comes to refugees and Covid is no longer an excuse, advocates say, urging the Government to reinstate the refugee quota and ensure the programme can respond to large-scale crises, as the borders open.

The possibility of millions of refugees from Ukraine has highlighted issues in New Zealand's refugee resettlement plan. Currently, New Zealand brings in refugees based on a regional quota. Europe is not included in that, with New Zealand only having capacity to bring in 200 refugees from Ukraine through an emergency allocation within the current quota.

As humanitarian crises around the world continue, such as those in Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia and South Sudan, questions have been raised whether New Zealand should be more flexible in how it brings in people who are escaping war, violence, political prosecutions and those more at risk of harm.

New Zealand has brought in 451 refugees since July 2021 for the 2021/22 financial year, making it increasingly unlikely it will reach its commitment of 1500. No date has been announced yet for New Zealand to fully resume its refugee resettlement programme.

Refugee advocate and Fulbright scholar Guled Mire said going forward, "we can't ignore the plight of refugees".

"The situation in Ukraine has brought this global refugee crisis to the forefront. But it's also important that we do not forget the many other hundreds and millions of refugees that are continuing to flee in many other parts of the world.

"This is a decision that the Government needs to make now, today, immediately, not next week, not next month. We're talking about an international crisis.

"Covid is no longer an excuse that can be used for a lack of political action on this matter."

Mire said the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) has called for greater numbers of resettlement places and resettlement allocations.

"It's time for the Government to be fair and to be transparent in that process. Yes, we have obligations as a regional partner in the Asia-Pacific region. But the reality is that if we look in a way that the greatest number of crises are unfolding is in Africa, Middle Eastern and now Europe, and ironically we don't even have a Europe category.

"This actually poses a serious issue, the Government can't continue to just push this back. We need to think about our regional allocations, and we can't be selective in terms of who we choose to offer humanity to so while it's important that we respond to the crisis in Ukraine, we must also not turn a blind eye to what's happening in Yemen, in Syria, what is still happening in Somalia in Kenya, and all of these other regions that are still contributing refugees.

"It's important that the Government is fair and that the refugee policy is actually based on international humanitarian needs."

Mire said it was "great that we have emergency places and mechanisms" to be able to help in situations such as that happening in Ukraine, "but really what these targets needs to be is they need to be responsive to current circumstances".

Executive director of Amnesty International Aotearoa Meg de Ronde said the Government needs to be consistently assessing the global need and increasing the number of people New Zealand resettles.

"There is the capacity for us to do more and steadily increase year on year," she told 1News.

Prior to 2018, the quota had sat at 750 for 30 years. The previous National Government increased the quota in 2016 to take effect from 2018. Last term, the Government increased it to 1500.

"It's not good enough to increase it after 30 years, fail to meet it, then not increase it," de Ronde said.

"Good intentions won't actually bring people to safety. Given we didn't fill the numbers for the last two years, it would seem a good possibility to bring an emergency quota over and above, to recognise there is a huge number of people who haven't had the opportunity to come to New Zealand in the last couple of years."

On the regional resettlement allocation, de Ronde said countries that are near crises "are doing a lot already".

Given that, she said it was reasonable to prioritise the Asia-Pacific region. But with the current humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, it seemed arbitrary to be bound by allocations.

De Ronde said this could cause issues if New Zealand needed to go above its 200 emergency allocation places, if other crises happened around the world in areas either not covered by the regional allocation or going beyond the current allocation allowances.

She was disappointed at the Government's seeming unwillingness to take large, one-off quotas in situations where there are huge crises.

Ukrainian-New Zealander Andriy Legenkyy, who spoke at Parliament during the unveiling of a Ukrainian artwork, told politicians they must offer a "safe haven to Ukrainian refugees".

"New Zealand must also do its part. Please start by urgently passing legislation to establish a refugee quota and let us bring our families to safety."

Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi told 1News last week New Zealand does have flexibility to respond to large-scale humanitarian crises but said while people are fleeing Ukraine, "their preference would be that they can return to their own homes within the Ukraine".

Kris Faafoi.

"All our refugees come through a process through the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), so we will work with them if there's an ask, and certainly want to make sure we do our part to support the humanitarian crisis there."

Asked about the number of people brought into New Zealand since July 2021, Faafoi said, "we would have liked to have taken more, but the border restrictions and the UN operation has restricted that".

"When we head into the next financial year we want to make sure that we can meet the full commitment of 1500, we're going through the process of what kind of regions we can prioritise. I don't think that will look too different. We've got some ability to play in amongst that 1500 to respond to issues the likes of Ukraine."

On regional allocations, Faafoi said it has "been the settings for some time, so it does allow us to plan, especially some of the settlement services here".

"We need to make sure we have communities here that can deal with languages, different cultures, and have the ability to plan and forward plan for that is important. But also we have to have some flexibility to respond to [a] fast-moving crisis."

However, he said they are "always are reviewing that, so depending on where there are conflicts and where the need is coming from the UNHCR, we review those on a regular basis".

"We will probably be looking at them very soon. We're always planning ahead to make sure we are planning resettlement as best as we can, and for where the spots are around the world to make sure we've got good balance as well."

Mire said the ball was in the Government's court when it came to New Zealand fulfilling international obligations, ensuring it was playing its part in responding to crises and completing its refugee commitments.

"It's not in the UNHCR's corner. It's in Minister Faafoi's and Cabinet's to make that decision. They're the ones who can help ensure that refugees are provided resettlement."

UNHCR figures show at the end of 2020, of the 82.4 million people who had been forcibly displaced, 42% of those were kids. As of mid-2021, the majority of refugees came from Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Myanmar.

Within New Zealand's quota, there was 150 places for women at risk, 75 for people with medical conditions and disabilities, 200 for large-scale refugee crisis situations, and an ongoing 150-place offer for Australia for people in offshore detention.

Currently, the other places with allocations are 50% from Asia-Pacific, 20% from Americas, 15% from Africa and 15% from the Middle East.

In released documents, former Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway recommended New Zealand's Asia-Pacific allocation decrease from 50% to 40% - increasing the Middle East and Africa allocations up to 20% each but keeping the requirement of having a family link.

Immigration NZ's Nicola Hogg said Ukrainian nationals in New Zealand on temporary visas that were due to expire this year were given a 12-month extension, and those offshore with a valid New Zealand visa all able to come here without needing a border exception.

She said INZ was prioritising visa applications and requests for border exceptions from Ukrainian nationals who are eligible under the current border settings.

"The Government is considering allowing more family members of Ukrainians to travel here and an announcement is expected shortly."

New Zealand's 150-place offer to Australia

Last month Australia said it had agreed in principle to New Zealand's almost decade-old offer to resettle 150 of their offshore refugees a year. But despite recent discussions, New Zealand said "we're not quite there yet".

Faafoi said last week that "Australia and New Zealand officials are working closely to put some final touches on an arrangement".

"It's no secret we've had the offer open for a long time and towards the end of last year that gathered some momentum, so when they're ready and we're ready, officials are working on some of the final touches so that long standing offer can come to fruition."

Asked if that could mean refugees currently in detention or in offshore detention centres may actually come to New Zealand, Faafoi said the timing "is not necessarily all of our making".

"Officials are talking about dotting the I's and crossing the T's, and again it's no surprise the offer has been on the table for some time."

De Ronde said Amnesty urged a swift resolution to the offer.

"Anything parties can be doing to ensure swiftly bring these people to safety. It should have been done yesterday."