Why raise the refugee quota?

By   /   April 15, 2015  /   10 Comments

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Recently we have seen some excellent work done by people looking at raising our refugee quota, and specifically to address the current crises emanating out of Syria and Iraq (and soon to be Yemen?).

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Recently we have seen some excellent work done by people looking at raising our refugee quota, and specifically to address the current crises emanating out of Syria and Iraq (and soon to be Yemen?). I encourage you to check out the campaign at Action Station building on the great work the Doing Our Bit campaign has been working on as well as the more recent Wage Peace NZ folks.

Our “refugee quota” is a maximum of up to 750 individuals each year that we will accept by way of a referral from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Our quota has not been raised since 1987.

In refugee speak, this process is called “resettlement”. It is one of the three “durable solutions” UNHCR speaks of. The other two, and more preferable, are “voluntary repatriation” and “local integration”.

There is no legal obligation to resettle refugees. The 1951 Refugee Convention – a document that has lead to the protection of millions of people – only speaks to the principle of burden sharing in its Preamble. Clearly, though, the burden of the majority of the world’s refugees rests on the developing world, so consistent with this principle some states agree to resettle the most vulnerable.

But, beyond the numbers and the technical language, why should we raise the quota? Aren’t we doing enough?

Let me tell you about Daevitha (name changed). I assisted her a couple of years ago and we were recently back in touch.

Daevitha is from Sri Lanka. Her family is from Jaffna in the north of Sri Lanka. They are Tamil. Her father and two brothers have worked in the struggle for independence from the Sinhalese majority and she believes in the cause. Daevitha is a good writer and has had some of her short stories published. She used to work as a journalist now and then.

Daevitha’s husband is a talented young man also from Jaffna and has studied abroad. He quickly rose through the ranks of the political arm of the Tamil Tigers becoming a trusted advisor to the leadership. He developed a high profile and appeared regularly in the Tamil media. They have a child together – he is now 10 years old, precocious, loves reading and playing soccer.

Following the bloody the end of the conflict, Daevitha’s husband was captured by the government troops. Daevitha’s father and brothers, though, were killed in the final military offensive launched by the government.

With thousands being forced into internment camps, Daevitha escaped to India with her son after paying a fisherman 50,000 Rupees to take her across. From India, she takes a flight to Bangkok, Thailand where she knows another Tamil woman is living. She and her son enter Thailand on a two week tourist visa.

Daevitha is told by members of the Tamil community in Bangkok to approach UNHCR. She does, and is given a piece of paper saying that she is an asylum seeker.

This paper, however, does not amount to legal status in Thailand meaning that her visa quickly expires and she is illegal in Thailand. At any time, she can be arrested and she often has to pay small bribes to local police to leave her alone. Other members of her community are detained and placed in the Immigration Detention Centre where the conditions are difficult, especially for children.

After being interviewed four times by UNHCR staff where at each interview she had to explain in detail the reasons as to why she left Sri Lanka including the retelling of traumatic events, Daevitha is told that her claim for asylum is accepted. She is now a refugee.

UNHCR considers that she has a genuine risk of facing serious harm were she to return Sri Lanka, something she always knew, but is now confirmed. Her grant of refugee status still does not make her legal in Thailand – she remains at risk of detention.

Daevitha is then interviewed again by another UNHCR staff member. This is for “resettlement purposes” and she has to once again explain why she was forced to leave Sri Lanka. She gets called back for another interview to clarify some points.

Then, finally, she is told her case has been submitted to Canada for resettlement. But, wait, now Canada wants to interview her…she waits for that interview and whether she will be able to live in a country where her status is legal and she can walk down the street without fear.

Daevitha has now been in Thailand for five years. During this time, she has been unable to work legally picking up some black market work here and there as a domestic helper. Her son has had no education save for her own attempts at home, but she knows he will get educated in Canada, if only they get accepted. Despite trying through official channels and the Red Cross, Daevitha has no word of her husband. She assumes he has been executed extra-judicially.

Daevitha, and others like her, is why we should raise our refugee quota. Resettlement will enable her and her son a clean slate in life. For her son in particular, the opportunities in front of him are endless.

I can write about increasing our “soft power” through the region, being a better player internationally, meeting our “kiwi values” through our foreign policy goals, and the need to do our bit. These are all incredibly important. But, at its heart, the refugee experience of survival and persistence is a human experience where cannot help but applaud. Where we can, the innate human and compassionate response should be to help those escaping human rights abuse. Like Daevitha and her son, they deserve a chance at safety.

Through an accident of geography New Zealand receives few asylum seekers directly. Through deliberate policies around visas and penalties against airlines or other carriers, we make it virtually impossible for individuals from refugee producing countries to obtain a visa. This leaves us as being ranked number 87 in the world for our refugee hosting per capita – hardly something to be proud of and patent evidence that we are not doing enough.

So, it is time to increase our quota. To help resettle more individuals who have already gone through a long and robust process proving that they are in need of protection.

Specifically, I would target more places from South East Asia – refugees who are currently in Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia. I would then leave an amount every year for emergency situations, like Syria.

All this takes is leadership. This isn’t a partisan issue. It is a human issue, and there is no political reason to leave our quota so stranded.

And, you want to know the latest with Daevitha? Well, looks like she and her son will be trying maple syrup pretty darn soon, eh…and that is the beauty of refugee protection.

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About the author

Michael Timmins

Michael Timmins is an expert in international human rights law. Specialising in refugee rights, Michael has worked in Egypt, the United States, Australia, Thailand, Pakistan and his home country of New Zealand across roles in advocacy, academia, and government. He is also a member of the Child Poverty Action Group's Management Committee. Michael’s writing covers international human rights, counter-terrorism, international environmental law, rule of law and accountability issues, as well as anything interesting happening in international relations.

10 Comments

  1. Jo Planet says:

    Why raise the refugee quota?
    Because it is the compassionate thing to do.
    Because we can.
    Because if you were in need you’d want it to happen to you.

  2. Andrew says:

    You say raise the refugee quota yet you fail to propose a number.

    How’s about 751?

    10,000?

    100,000?

    Where will they stay? At your place? If you have a spare bedroom I’m sure we could fit in a dozen or so.

    Whilst your earnest desire to save people from a horrid fate is most endearing, I suspect you’ve not really thought the problem through thoroughly enough and asked yourself if relocating this drop in the ocean of humanity will make a jot of difference.

    Have you considered volunteering to provide birth control support over there? Because that might just make a difference!

    • Lauren Barus says:

      Sir, you miss the point by jumping to protective , defensive questions about where they will stay and how we will house them. Looking after refugees is a process that starts out of an understanding of the “principle of burden sharing” that we are, for unknown reasons, born into a privileged country while they are born into worn torn or deprived situations and to share our benefit with others less fortunate may be a greater benefit to the human race as a whole. This is not about birth control, are you now going to segregate the child bearing world on the basis of geography? what an absurd idea.
      While you, sir, think about yourself and the interference on your environment when considering refugees you are neglecting that this view point fails to maintain the principle of burden sharing, maybe just maybe you could do with out some thing in order for some one else to have but a fraction of the benefit you have so far been given ( you are alive, you have a computer and you can read and write). We as a human species need to ask the question, are we individuals living and dying alone in protection of our own survival and the means there of, or are we connected as a species, as a whole, do our actions effect the lives of others? and are we responsible for that? I sense you would urge toward the former. Gratefully, there are many who seek the latter; the out come as far as I can see is greater than us all and longer than the life we will be around to witness. my question is, what will your contribution to the path humanity be?

      Lauren

    • Dan says:

      How about zero

  3. ThinkAboutIt says:

    While I support an increase in the numbers of refugees taken into NZ I will probably totally off side with most others of this opinion.
    The reason being that I would require a screening as to the persons attitudes to gender, sexual and religious rights and freedoms.

    • John says:

      Absolutely, if we are going to welcome people into our country, then they better at least share some of our beliefs and values.

      • Ali says:

        How do you propose we compare values of two completely different cultures and societies, upbringings, experiences etc?
        I agree with article 100%.

  4. cassie says:

    Charity begins at home.
    Why increase the competition for the large no.s of NZers who are already desperate & struggling to find jobs? Have you noticed the increase in homeless people on the streets in recent years?
    Also the no’s of NZ refugees from Bank’s mortgagee sales are going to be sharply inclining in the coming years..
    (“our quota has not been increased since 1987” – neither have wages really.)
    I think 750 per year EVERY year is quite enough.

  5. Ali says:

    I really can’t believe the number of negative reactions to the idea of raising the quota. How disappointing.