Speech to Aotearoa Refugee Hui
Nga mihi nui ki a koutou,
Welcome to the Parliament, your Parliament.
It is great to see the community here in such numbers, and I am happy to be here with my parliamentary colleagues to listen and take part in the discussions today. I particularly want to acknowledge Ibrahim Omer and Vanushi Walters, two of my Labour colleagues who have been such a force in advocating for progress on refugee and asylum seeker policy.
As a member of the Labour Party, as someone who has been a campaigner against poverty and for human rights all my life, and as a Minister in the Sixth Labour Government, I want to set out for you why I think refugee policy is so important.
First, it is an expression of values at the heart of what it means to be a New Zealander: compassion, and a commitment to fairness, human dignity and equality.
Nowhere are these values so keenly felt than in the plight of millions of people, displaced or fleeing conflict, violence and oppression.
People who sometimes spend years or even decades languishing in refugee camps or in places where they don’t enjoy the protections and rights of citizenship.
People who are vulnerable to exploitation, and while fleeing violence or oppression are subject to acute risk.
Second, for us here in New Zealand, the measure of our refugee policy is a core component of our desire to be good global citizens.
On our own we are too small to make much of a dent in the climate emergency, global poverty, the threat of nuclear catastrophe, or the plight of 90 million refugees.
But we know we have to be part of global movements to make change.
In fact it is the only way our species will survive.
I believe the number of refugees we welcome, how well we resettle them here, and how strongly we advocate internationally for the protection and human rights of refugees is a litmus test of New Zealand’s standing as a global citizen.
This brings me to my third point, which is that we have an obligation to uphold human rights, and to give refuge to those who need it, because of our commitments under international law.
New Zealand’s foreign policy embraces the idea that our national self-interest, including our economic and environmental security and our national security, all rely on the global collective security that only the international rules based system can deliver.
The 1951 Refugee Convention lies at the heart of that rules based order. We signed up to it.
It’s not a guideline. It’s the law.
And at a time in history when the international rules based order is under tremendous pressure, it is more important than ever that we defend it.
Refugees and asylum seekers have been used as political footballs, their rights undermined, and the provisions of the Convention ignored, even in some of the world’s most established liberal democracies.
It is important to this Government that New Zealand does the right thing, and is on the right side of this debate internationally.
I am not going to suggest that we are a model or at the front of the pack.
For a start, it will be well known to everyone here, that per head of population the annual quota of refugees we take in is very low.
Following a grassroots campaign in the lead up to the 2017 election, Labour adopted the policy of doubling the quota. We came to Government with a mandate and in 2018 we increased it to 1500 per year.
It is a significant increase. But it is off a low base. And arguably we need to go further.
As well as increasing the quota, we have been on a journey since taking office in 2017 to improve and upgrade the way we welcome and resettle refugees in our country.
There is a lot going on in this space, but one thing I wanted to highlight is the way we responded to the campaign by Amnesty International and the Asylum Seekers Support Trust.
Amnesty published a report “Please Take Me to a Safe Place: The imprisonment of asylum seekers in Aotearoa New Zealand” which said some asylum seekers were being imprisoned while their claims were being processed in breach of our international human rights obligations.
The report included some harrowing accounts of asylum seekers subjected to violence in prison, including a case where a reported survivor of torture, later recognised as a refugee, was allegedly raped whilst being double bunked in prison.
In response to the Amnesty report we commissioned an independent investigation by Victoria Casey QC. She found essentially that Amnesty’s report was correct, and made a number of recommendations to reform legislation, policy and procedures to ensure the practice of imprisoning some asylum seekers does not continue.
We have accepted all of Victoria Casey’s recommendations. There are currently no asylum seekers in detention.
Shortly after the Casey report was commissioned, another excellent report was published: Safe Start. Fair Future. Refugee Equality in which Jay Marlowe and Bernard Sama argued persuasively there should be equality of treatment in the way we support and resettle Quota and Convention refugees.
It is a principle that is hard to argue with. And the issue will be dealt with in the refresh of the Refugee Resettlement Strategy which will be concluded soon.
One of the proudest moments as a Labour Party member was Prime Minister Helen Clark’s decision in 2001 to accept around 150 asylum seekers from Afghanistan who had been rescued on the high seas by the Norwegian cargo ship MV Tampa, after Australian authorities turned the ship away.
These families who had fled Taliban controlled Afghanistan have settled extremely well in New Zealand. Their story has become the stuff of legend.
Twenty years later Afghanistan was again at the centre of a Labour Government’s refugee policy.
On the 15th of August last year Kabul fell to the Taliban, bringing to an end a 20 year US and Nato-led intervention which New Zealand had contributed to, through the deployment of the NZ Defence Force in Bamiyan province.
Many Afghans were understandably fearful of Taliban rule. And those who had worked alongside or for the western military forces especially so.
As part of an international airlift operation trying to evacuate as many people as it could out of Kabul airport, NZ mobilised an NZDF team and a Hercules C-130.
Cabinet authorised resettlement visas for Afghans who had worked with or assisted the New Zealand presence in Afghanistan, and their families.
Many Afghans, some with the support of Kiwi advocates they’d worked with, emailed in their applications which were processed in Wellington and visas emailed.
In the chaos and danger of Kabul, people negotiated Taliban checkpoints to try and make their way to the airport, and gathered in the frantic crowds hoping to get onto planes.
Informal WhatsApp messaging groups were set up sharing information about where on the Kabul airport perimeter to wait, and how to signal to Kiwi soldiers that you had a New Zealand visa and thus needed help to get into the airport.
While this was going on the public service swung into action deploying more than 100 Foreign Affairs and Immigration officials to work in Wellington and in the region, in Iran and Pakistan and United Arab Emirates, to support the resettlement of what six months later had become more than 1700 people.
Several hundred Afghans were airlifted out of Kabul during those first few dramatic days. But then the airport closed, and the last international troops pulled out.
In the months that followed many brave Afghans found various ways to get out of the country, by land and air. There will be many stories told in future about these courageous journeys.
Once the ones with Kiwi visas got out into Iran or Pakistan they were met by NZ officials, put up in hotels and put on commercial flights to New Zealand.
Their introduction to life here was in an apartment block in downtown Auckland, with Immigration NZ standing up a bespoke resettlement service for them modelled on the kind of support quota refugees get when they arrive.
Amongst the 1700 Afghans were some 200 Afghans given refuge here because of their work as human rights defenders, and their extreme vulnerability to persecution by the Taliban as a result of their work.
This group included female judges, journalists, prosecutors, staff of the Human Rights Commission, politicians, LGBTQ+, human rights activists.
The resettlement of these 1700 Afghans – not quota refugees, not asylum seekers, not even refugees by law – will go down in New Zealand’s history of interventions to give refuge to those in need.
And these two chapters – the Afghanistan resettlement programme, and our response to the Amnesty International report on the detention of asylum seekers – have been for me two of the highlights among a busy trajectory of progress over the last five years.
Much of the progress in this work comes from advocacy by this community, and a creative partnership between government and civil society.
I hope the dialogue today will strengthen that partnership even more in the service of continually improving New Zealand’s refugee policy.