Doing Less, For Fewer

National’s policies on refugees are an exercise in cost-cutting and officialese
by Murdoch Stephens

Recent releases under the Official Information Act (OIA) highlight the New Zealand government’s attempts to turn the refugee resettlement allocation away from being a tool to give shelter to those in most need. Instead, the allocations have reduced refugee intakes from Africa and the Middle East – apparently in order to save money- using a curious double-talk of opportunity and inclusion.

The plight of refugees is an international responsibility that tends to fall most heavily upon poor countries that can ill afford the intake pouring across their borders. Even when compared to other developed countries, New Zealand continues to drag its feet in meeting its share. The shuffling of the numbers occurs against this backdrop where New Zealand ranks 97th in the world per capita for its intake of refugees. Even so, the OIA evidence cited below shows that we are trying to cut costs even further.

Let’s take a look at three important questions.

(i) Why do New Zealand politicians think our current contributions are sufficient?

When New Zealand decided to take 150 ‘transferee’ refugees from Australia’s detention centre in Nauru, Manus Island or PNG, there was also a discussion as to whether

(a) the quota should decrease to 600

(b) the quota should be kept at 750, and with the Australian detention centre intake in addition, or

(c) the quota should increase to 850.

Those preparing the documentation seemed to be setting the Minister up for keeping the quota at 750, with the 150 Australian asylum seekers to be in addition. The increase to 850 was proposed but not recommended, while the costs and risks for the reduction to 600 places were completely redacted under section 9(2)(g)(i) of the Official Information Act[i] apart from the statement that it would be cost neutral[ii].

An Aide Memoir for Minister of Immigration Michael Woodhouse’s late February meeting with Murray McCully states that the Prime Minister has indicated in public a preference for keeping the quota at 750. There was no further discussion on the matter. Our UNHCR referred quota was therefore reduced to 600.

But how did Key decide that a quota of 600 plus 150 transferees was the right number for New Zealand? [Editor’s Note : the Abbott government has just scrapped the plan to transfer 150 detainees to New Zealand.] The best way to decide how many refugees to take is to look at what other countries do.

An initial problem is presented: the majority of the world’s refugees are not resettled through a UNHCR quota system, but are accepted once they have presented themselves as onshore asylum seekers. Australasian and North American countries that were geographically removed from the borders that asylum seekers could cross to claim asylum ended up taking much less than their fair share of refugees.

To make up for this the UNHCR created the quota system. There are nine countries that take the bulk of resettled refugees, of which New Zealand is one. In contrast there are more than one hundred and fifty who host refugee populations. The number of asylum seekers accepted in New Zealand reached a peak of 650 in 2001-2002. This has dropped to less than a hundred a year recently[iii].

A country’s total refugee intake is made up of quota and asylum refugees. When Michael Woodhouse, the Minister of Immigration says New Zealand is a world leader in taking refugees he focuses only on the quota.

Compare New Zealand to the United Kingdom: per capita we took 14 times as many via the quota system as the United Kingdom in 2011[iv]. When you add the asylum

seekers accepted you see that in total the United Kingdom actually takes 66% more refugees than New Zealand.

Woodhouse, six months into his new position, has slowly learnt to moderate his claims. In April he claimed that New Zealand had one of the highest refugee intakes in the world[v]. By July 1 he had learnt that this was not true. So what did he do? Instead of acknowledging that New Zealand is 97th in the world for refugees per capita[vi] (110th in the world for refugees per capita adjusted for GDP) he offered the following “The 750 annual Quota, places New Zealand sixth equal in the world for accepting refugees referred by the UNHCR”[vii].

New Zealand has not changed our quota since 1997, when National reduced it from 800 to 750 per annum. Meanwhile, since the quota was introduced our population has added more than a million new people. To keep up with population inflation we would need a quota of 1000. In the context of the much larger numbers of asylum seekers accepted elsewhere, it is clear that New Zealand is not doing it’s bit.

(ii) Who should be the priority refugees?

In 2013 the New Zealand government created a new sub-category for refugees who require “emergency resettlement from large-scale refugee crisis situations”[viii]. These 50 places would be a part of the existing quota and those regional allocations. For example, if these 50 crisis refugees came from a refugee camp in Lebanon, then the quota of 82 people from the Middle East would be reduced to an additional 32.

But what is a refugee if they are not a priority, not in a crisis, not in an emergency? William Maley, an Australian expert in refugee issues and Afghanistan, with reference to Australia’s intake, says that while few would begrudge Bhutanese refugees “the opportunity to enjoy a better life in Australia, no one could seriously describe them as the neediest refugees in the world”[ix]. He links the preference for refugees from Asia to a US focus on resettling refugees away from Middle Eastern sources. New Zealand extends this preference to include refugees from the whole of the Asia-Pacific region to the detriment of those from Africa.

The government’s August 2010 refugee allocation policies have already undermined the notion that refugees should be taken based on need. In fact, the opposite is now the case. We aim to take those who are will have the least cost of integrating them into New Zealand society.

The establishment of a category of 50 emergency refugees simply underlines the fact that the other 700 refugees are taken out of consideration for factors other than the immediacy of need. These factors are clear: ease of settlement, and back scratching deals with the Australian government.

(iii) Should New Zealand accept refugees from Africa?

The 2010 Cabinet decision to include ‘opportunities’ for Middle Eastern and African family reunification sounds like an expansion of options for refugees from this area. It is, in fact, the opposite. This ‘inclusion’ is an amazingly audacious case of double-speak for it actually represents exclusion. In short, there were to be no new refugees sourced from this Africa and the Middle East unless they already had family residing in New Zealand.[x]

The statistics for refugee intakes from 2002 to present speak to this decrease. From 2002-2003 to 2009-2010, New Zealand took, on average, 179 African refugees every year. In 2010-2011 we took 40; in 2011-2012 we took 37, despite committing to 115 per year. When this shortcoming was presented to the Minister for Immigration he was given two options: make up the quota with African refugees from large-scale emergency situations or reallocate the African quota to Asia-Pacific refugees. Defying the government’s stated commitment to a regionally balanced quota, the later option was chosen.

What was the government’s motive in only allowing family reunification as a basis for African refugees? Clearly there was no capacity for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) to find family reunification cases for African families already in New Zealand. And if only a third of places could be filled by family members in the first year after this policy came into place, then how could the government expect to fill the whole quota in subsequent years when no new African refugees were being allowed into New Zealand? In practical terms, the allocation would put an end to African refugees from being resettled in New Zealand.

Why would the government do this? Let’s consider the broader strategies of the Ministry of Foreign Affaris and Trade. When NZAid was pulled into Murray McCully’s portfolio in 2009 aid was no longer to be distributed to alleviate needs identified at the grassroots, but to abet an ‘economic development’ strategy aligned with New Zealand’s own political objectives[xi]. In that sense, refugees were not to be accepted based on their needs, but on ours. And what are our needs in this area? Seamless integration via an abandonment of religious and language connections to the refugee’s home countries and, overall, reduced costs to government. Compare the

National government’s approach against that of the UNHCR – which advocates for a balanced regional quota based on priority protection needs.

Two changes have occurred to this policy in 2013. Firstly, after acknowledgement that New Zealand was not meeting its needs to take a regionally balanced quota, it was proposed that non-family reunification cases will once again be taken from Africa and the Middle East. This is an important reversal that means there is no longer an excuse for excluding Africans from the quota.

Secondly, with the official acceptance of 150 ‘transferee’ refugees from asylum seekers detained by the Australian government, the UNHCR resettlement quota will be reduced from 750 to 600 in the 2014-15 period. As these people are coming from the Asia-Pacific region, there was some internal debate about whether the 150 should be a part of those sourced from Asia-Pacific. They were not counted as such, meaning that 60% of those quota plus transferee refugees will come from Asia-Pacific. This means that the proportion from not only Africa, but also the Americas and the Middle East, drops. In real terms that is a drop from 117 people to 83 per annum.

Weighing up these two changes it is still a gain for the African refugee population when compared to the August 2010 changes. However, in comparison to pre-2010 refugee numbers, the number of African refugees has more than halved from 179 per year in the 2002-2003 to 2009-2010 period to an aim of 83 per annum once these changes are introduced in the coming year.

A concluding question: will Labour be any better?

There would seem to be no point in talking with a National led government on these matters. They have proven that they believe in nothing save cost cutting. That makes them nihilists, not conservatives. The Minister for Immigration, Michael Woodhouse, (who I had formerly thought to be a family values candidate) offered this revealing quote from Friedrich Nietzsche on his Facebook page on September 10th of this year: “There are no facts, only interpretations.”[xii] Try telling that to the one and a half million Syrians who fled their civil war to neighbouring countries.

The focus needs to turn to Labour and the Greens. While I have received positive words in private from numerous Labour and Green MPs, only the Greens have a policy to increase the quota to 1000 and to increase funding to match. The Labour policy at the last election was to review their policy. With David Parker tightly controlling the purse strings heading into 2014, is it likely they will commit to an increased quota?

If the Helen Clark led government is anything to go by Labour will commit more money to NGOs in the sector while offering a more balanced regional allocation that should better reflect priority needs. Across Clark’s nine years in power the general population increased by 11%; yet our refugee quota remained stagnant.

Labour must ask if they wish to govern a country that is 97th in the world in terms of refugees per head of population. They must understand that though we may have the 8th highest resettlement intake, most countries don’t resettle refugees – they accept asylum seekers. When total refugees are considered – accepted asylum seekers and resettled refugees – New Zealand is 97th in the world per capita[xiii].

The simple option for a Labour/Green government would be to increase the resettlement quota to 1000 to match population growth since the introduction of the quota in 1987. In terms of unemployment rates and GDP growth we’re second best in the OECD. References to the global financial crisis and austerity should be muted.

The move to 1000 places is easily justifiable by population inflation and requires little political spine. Doubling the quota, however, would really help to make up for the lack of asylum seekers who make it to the country. This wouldn’t turn us into Sweden, who’d still accept more than ten times as many refugees per capita, but we might be able to say that we’re doing our bit.

Murdoch Stephens co-ordinates the Doing Our Bit ( campaign to double New Zealand’s refugee quota and funding.

[i] This redaction is subject to an Ombudsman inquiry as of September 28, 2013.
[ii] The NZ Herald editorial of 14 February 2013 stated that the deal would actually save money as the places were traded for concessions to get Australian officials to chase New Zealand student loans. The same editorial went on to say, “The pity is that these people will not be added to our annual quota of 750 refugees accepted through the UN resettlement programme but will displace 150 of those people. We could, and should, do far better than reducing our programme quota to 600 a year. A total of 750 refugees is paltry in a population of 4.4 million. We could surely do better.”
[iii] The reasons for this drop are generally put down to stricter criteria and forward processing of people wihsing to come into New Zealand from countries that refugees tend to come from.
[iv] New Zealand quota: 457; United Kingdom: 430. Both had targets of 750. The UK had 25,000 asylum seeker applications; New Zealand had 305. More details and comparisons can be found at the Doing Our Bit website:
[vi] UNHCR Yearbook Statistical Annex for 2011 –
[viii] p.6 MBIE Cabinet Paper 29 May 2013 Tracker No. 13/01727. Online at
[x] Here I am focussing on African refugees in this figure as the percentage is based on the regions in which refugees are sourced, not their nationality. As such, many Afghani refugees arrive under the Asia-Pacific category.
[xii] – for commentary on the appropriation of uncertainty from critical theory to conservative politics see the opening of Bruno LaTour’s “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern”
[xiii] This is the 2011 statistic. It will climb in the 2012 listing as we skipped a round of 150 refugees in the 2011 figures due to the Christchurch earthquake.

1 Comment on Doing Less, For Fewer

  1. Hi there, I am doing a school project, and I was wondering what your direct perspective was? Would be great if you could reply by tonight :)

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