World Refugee Day

  • Lianne Dalziel

Good evening and welcome.

Thank you for joining us today to celebrate World Refugee Day.

We gathered here in December 2000 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. And last year we acknowledged the 50th anniversary of the 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees.

It is appropriate that World Refugee Day has come to symbolise not only the world’s refugees over the decades, but also the tremendous humanitarian efforts of governments, the international agencies and the local communities of countries that offer protection and resettlement to them. It is also, however, appropriate to comment on the growing nature of the problem, and to observe that it is a sad reflection on the state of the world that more than half a century on, we seem to be moving further away from resolution to the persecution, conflict and oppression that drives people from their own countries than we ever were.

These mixed feelings are best described in the UNHCR’s 50th Anniversary Report, written by the then High Commissioner, Sadako Ogata, where she said:

"As we enter the new millennium, the fact that the world still finds a need for the UNHCR should serve as a sobering reminder of the international community's continuing failure to prevent prejudice, persecution, poverty and other root causes of conflict and displacement.

But If the longevity of the UNHCR as an organisation is nothing to celebrate, the courage of the tens of millions of refugees and displaced people who have survived over the past 50 years certainly is. Often losing everything but hope, they are amongst the great survivors of the 20th century and they deserve our respect."

New Zealand is only one of a small number of countries that accepts refugees for resettlement each year. Our formal refugee settlement programme evolved from the 1944 arrival of about 650 Polish refugees. Since then, we have welcomed refugees from countries all over the world.

Today we offer refuge to up to 750 people annually. This may seem a small number, but for the size of New Zealand's population it is not insignificant, and it doesn’t include family members who arrive later under the family sponsored categories, nor asylum seekers who are granted refugee status in New Zealand each year. Our overall commitment, when these refugees are included, is actually around 1,250 refugees a year – around 2.5% of the annual NZ Immigration Programme.

I want to take this occasion to formally thank UNHCR for responding so positively to this government’s request to use nearly half the annual programme to assist in reuniting family members. It makes an enormous difference to former refugees, when the burden of meeting the cost of bringing family members to New Zealand, can be met by the resettlement programme. It truly is a win-win.

When today’s event was being planned, we did not realise that it would be occurring during an election campaign, however, given the statements of various Party leaders over recent months, there could be no mistake that it was an election year. Both the Act and the NZ First party leaders have sought to bolster their electoral standing by attacking those who usually do not seek to publicise their circumstances in any country – including their country of resettlement. I think it is worthwhile re-stating just who the Convention describes as having the status of refugee.

A refugee is a person who cannot remain in or return to their country of nationality due to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.

Accepting refugees means that as a country we offer them protection – the quality of that protection is what lies at the heart of this government’s commitment to refugee resettlement across all three categories of refugees.

When we became the government, we had to stop the previous government’s decision to tender out the work of the Refugee & Migrant Service, the principal NGO provider of refugee resettlement services. Instead, we have worked together with RMS and other agencies to integrate and expand on resettlement programmes, and in 2001 we provided their first funding increase in 10 years, and in 2002 announced that we will fund the co-ordinator of their NZQA approved volunteer training programme.

With respect to asylum seekers, we have made enormous strides in reducing the backlog of claims, and providing a much quicker process determining claims, which has the double advantage of identifying quickly those who seek to abuse the system with manifestly unfounded claims, while offering early resettlement to those whose refugee status is accepted.

When I became the Minister over 3000 claims were waiting to be determined – that figure today is under 800.

We have also been the first government to provide funding to the Auckland Refugee Council Hostel for asylum seekers, and they have moved from Mt Albert to Glendene, expanding both their capacity and their services.

This year’s Budget has made provision for continued funding for resettlement projects based on the successful pilots established last year, and it has been a pleasure to see new resources being developed and distributed with refugee communities in mind. In addition funding has been made available for off-shore health screening, something that has been long-awaited. This will enable us, for example, to identify active TB prior to departure, so that treatment can be undertaken before any plane journey, reducing the risk of potential exposure to the international flying public.

I am proud of what we have achieved as a government in a relatively short period of time, but there is still more to be done.

I want New Zealand to be able to make a greater commitment to the UNHCR programme, however, we need to ensure that resettlement programmes are effective and sustainable, before we do that.

There is considerable voluntary commitment involved in our refugee resettlement programme – that is its strength, but volunteers are not a limitless resource. Nor can we take for granted the goodwill that has been generated over the years.

So on behalf of the NZ government can I thank all those volunteers who contribute to the well-being of our refugees, to the NGOs who of course make significant contributions to, and the staff of the government agencies that truly go beyond the call of duty in responding to the needs of our refugee populations.

The capacity of central government, including immigration, health, education and housing, local government and community to work together well, was in evidence with the resettlement for the group that became known as the Tampa refugees. I know that they have felt overwhelmed at the acts of kindness they have experienced over the months that changed their lives forever. I am confident that like many refugees before them that they and their children will play a significant role in New Zealand’s future as they return with gratitude the support that was granted to them.

Finally to those who are former refugees, and those who are more recently arrived, my message is that you are welcome in New Zealand. We know you did not choose to come here – freedom of choice is not in the mind of those who flee persecution. We hope that New Zealand is able to offer you the freedom you lost, but most importantly freedom of choice; a freedom that might one day lead you or your children back to rebuild the country you fled months or years ago, or that might lead you to remain and contribute to the economic and social development of the country that has offered you protection. In either case the choice should be yours, and yours alone.

Thank you all again for coming and sharing this important occasion.