Amnesty International New Zealand Annual General Meeting

  • Max Bradford
Immigration

Kiwi International Hotel, Auckland

Members of Amnesty International New Zealand, thank you for inviting me to speak at your annual meeting today.

I understand a main focus for Amnesty International New Zealand this year is to bring the plight of refugees to the attention of New Zealanders.

It is a worthwhile campaign and I commend you for the work you do.

Among other things, Amnesty is a much-needed international voice and advocate for millions of people who are not in a position to speak out for themselves...

millions who have been forced to flee their countries because of persecution....

millions whose Governments do not recognise or protect the basic human rights and freedoms rights of individuals.

Our Government in New Zealand may come in for a fair amount of criticism - especially at the moment - but it protects fundamental freedoms and human rights - life, security, democracy, non-discrimination, justice, freedom of expression, belief and association.

These are things we take for granted, but millions of people in the world do not share our reality.

The subject of refugees will always be an emotive one.

In a speech earlier this month the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees revealed that refugee numbers have mushroomed from 1.5 million in 1951, to the point where the UNHCR is now responsible for 26 million refugees, displaced persons and returnees.

The scale of the current global refugee problem is mind-boggling - more than eight times the population of New Zealand.

The problem is particularly acute in today's' world because of the massive numbers of people involved and the speed with which large refugee movements can take place.

It brings home the unavoidable fact that whatever contribution NZ makes in terms of resettling refugees here, it will only take a drop out of an ocean.

Out of the three options of moving refugees to a safe place in their own country, or to nearby country, resettlement in a foreign place is regarded as the least desirable long term solution to the plight of refugees.

It moves refugees far from their own countries and requires major readjustment.

It is a last resort and the UNHCR seeks resettlement for only a minute fraction - less than one per cent - of the world's refugees.

New Zealand has been accepting refugees for resettlement since the end of the second world war. Since then more than 20,000 refugees and displaced persons have settled in New Zealand.

Out the 184 member states in the United Nations New Zealand is one of only 10 which have annual refugee resettlement quotas.

We accept up to 800 refugees each year, divided into special categories, who are identified and referred to New Zealand by the UNHCR.

More than 80 per cent of the world's refugees are women and children.

Yet women are often disadvantaged when it comes to selection for resettlement, especially if selection criteria is focused on the ability to resettle easily.

Because of the traditional roles women play in many cultures they are often less educated, have less work skills and are often accompanied by their children.

That is why New Zealand sets aside places for the UNHCR's women-at-risk category, to enable refugee women who would otherwise be ineligible, to be resettled.

New Zealand was the second country to assign a special quota for women at risk, and has been joined in this policy by only Canada, the States and Australia.

New Zealand has long been a leader in its humanitarian policies and so it will remain.

In 1959 we pioneered the resettlement of disabled refugees who would otherwise be ineligible for resettlement, setting off a chain reaction which saw a succession of other countries follow suit and earning praise from the High Commissioner from Refugees who said:

The international significance of New Zealand's humanitarian action (means that) today we can count literally thousands of resettlement opportunities which have grown out of this wide-ranging reappraisal touched off by New Zealand.

Refugees accepted within the quota are entitled to live in NZ permanently and to enjoy the same rights as New Zealand citizens.

They undergo a six week orientation course at the Mangere Refugee Reception Centre, before being settled in the community with the help of sponsors.

Much of what we can do to help the plight of refugees can be attributed to the care, generosity and willingness of refugee organisations and the wider community in sponsoring refugee families and getting them established.

I firmly believe continued co-operation with the UNHCR is the best way for the New Zealand Government to respond to the international refugee problem.

In the past year we have donated grants of $1.25 million to the UNHCR. A further $250,000 has gone towards their work in the Great Lakes region of Africa, and last year $100,000 went to UNHCR work in Zaire.

As you know, the UNHCR quota is separate from the numbers of people who make their own way here to apply for asylum.

I want to stress that New Zealand will not turn away genuine asylum seekers who come here of their own accord seeking refuge from persecution.

It is part of our responsibility as a member of the international community - bound by treaties - to protect refugees, give them basic rights and not to force them to return to the country of persecution.

But even the UNHCR acknowledges the problems posed by the mixture of genuine asylum seekers and of people escaping from economic hardship.

This is an issue I have turned my attention to as Minister of Immigration.

A few weeks ago reports about my intention to address problems associated with asylum seekers raised the concern of some members of your organisation - more through misunderstanding than a genuine difference in our positions.

Asylum seeker numbers have surged upwards in the past few years, mirroring global trends.

In 1993, New Zealand received 347 claims for refugee status. By last year that number rose nearly four-fold to 1310.

That is in addition to the annual 800 refugees referred to us by the UNHCR.

Yet, since 1993, only 28 per cent of claims for refugee status have been assessed as genuine.

There exists what amounts to an appeals loop in New Zealand.

First up an asylum seeker makes an application for refugee status.

If deemed not to be a genuine refugee he can appeal.

If the appeal is unsuccessful, he may simply appeal on another basis, or to another authority and so on, right through to the Minister of Immigration and the High Court.

Some also use delaying tactics like failing to turn up for interviews.

In a worst case scenario a person may deliberately exploit the appeals system to remain in New Zealand for up to six years.

During that time they can claim Government funded services such as social welfare benefits, health and education services and legal aid. There are additional costs for those with dependent children.

The costs to taxpayers of social welfare and the appeals process run into tens of thousands for each asylum seeker each year.

Within this time applicants may become settled, making it very difficult to remove a person especially if their children are born in New Zealand.

Talk of removal sounds very harsh, but remember I am not talking about genuine refugees who seek asylum because they fear for their lives and their freedom.

I'm talking about people who come here under that pretext, when in fact they are simply seeking a life in New Zealand which they perceive as better than their own country.

That person is not a refugee in the honorable sense of the UNHCR programme.

They deny genuine refugees the chance to enter, because we must have regard to the overall numbers of immigrants each year, whatever scheme they may be sourced from.

There are countless cases of this kind, which privacy legislation prevents me from discussing, but some of which have been well covered in the media.

It is believed New Zealand may be a target for non-genuine asylum seekers on the basis that it will take a number of years before removal is unavoidable.

New Zealand is seen as a soft touch.

The number of non-genuine claims means genuine asylum seekers are having to wait a long time before they can rest in the knowledge that they are safe.

What New Zealand needs to do is radically reduce the amount of time it takes to process refugee status applications and appeals so that it does not allow consultants, lawyers and would-be refugees to recycle appeals through a variety of avenues.

The process needs to be fair, impartial and fast for the benefit of everyone.

The surging numbers of people seeking asylum need to know within a few months of their arrival in New Zealand whether they stay or leave.

It is in the interests of both the asylum seekers and ourselves to do that.

I want to see a process put in place which deals with refugee status applications much more quickly than at present.

That would allow us to avoid the problems and expense which inevitably arise out of a long drawn out process.

I recently exchanged ideas on this issue with the Australian Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock.

We have different laws operating but it would make sense for us to take a common approach because we have common border arrangements.

Both Australia and Canada have responded to increasing refugee status claims and are reviewing their systems in recognition of the need to ensure a fair, fast determination process.

You need not fear that New Zealand will follow the Australian policy of detaining asylum seekers who don't have prior refugee status.

Detention camps in New Zealand for people seeking asylum are not appropriate, not necessary and not contemplated.

What we do need to do is send out clear signals to the rest of the world that New Zealand is not a soft touch for those seeking a better life in a more desirable country than their own.

I am in no way suggesting that New Zealand back down from its humanitarian obligations to refugees under international law.

Per capita we contribute more than most countries do, and will continue to do so.

But we must find a way of making the procedures for asylum seekers faster and fairer, and less prone to exploitation.

A system which lacks integrity undermines both the UNHCR programme and the identification of genuine refugees.

We must discourage the so-called economic refugees who are clogging the system, costing tax payers and making life harder for those who really do need our help - the real refugees, the ones you in Amnesty and numerous other organisations are trying to assist.

In that way we can continue to offer humanitarian aid to those who need it most and continue to do our bit to address the plight of the world's refugees.

Amnesty International could play a role in getting more integrity into our system. Such an end is in all our interests.

The Government would welcome your support to ensure our refugee policy has more integrity and focus.Kiwi International Hotel, Auckland

Members of Amnesty International New Zealand, thank you for inviting me to speak at your annual meeting today.

I understand a main focus for Amnesty International New Zealand this year is to bring the plight of refugees to the attention of New Zealanders.

It is a worthwhile campaign and I commend you for the work you do.

Among other things, Amnesty is a much-needed international voice and advocate for millions of people who are not in a position to speak out for themselves...

millions who have been forced to flee their countries because of persecution....

millions whose Governments do not recognise or protect the basic human rights and freedoms rights of individuals.

Our Government in New Zealand may come in for a fair amount of criticism - especially at the moment - but it protects fundamental freedoms and human rights - life, security, democracy, non-discrimination, justice, freedom of expression, belief and association.

These are things we take for granted, but millions of people in the world do not share our reality.

The subject of refugees will always be an emotive one.

In a speech earlier this month the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees revealed that refugee numbers have mushroomed from 1.5 million in 1951, to the point where the UNHCR is now responsible for 26 million refugees, displaced persons and returnees.

The scale of the current global refugee problem is mind-boggling - more than eight times the population of New Zealand.

The problem is particularly acute in today's' world because of the massive numbers of people involved and the speed with which large refugee movements can take place.

It brings home the unavoidable fact that whatever contribution NZ makes in terms of resettling refugees here, it will only take a drop out of an ocean.

Out of the three options of moving refugees to a safe place in their own country, or to nearby country, resettlement in a foreign place is regarded as the least desirable long term solution to the plight of refugees.

It moves refugees far from their own countries and requires major readjustment.

It is a last resort and the UNHCR seeks resettlement for only a minute fraction - less than one per cent - of the world's refugees.

New Zealand has been accepting refugees for resettlement since the end of the second world war. Since then more than 20,000 refugees and displaced persons have settled in New Zealand.

Out the 184 member states in the United Nations New Zealand is one of only 10 which have annual refugee resettlement quotas.

We accept up to 800 refugees each year, divided into special categories, who are identified and referred to New Zealand by the UNHCR.

More than 80 per cent of the world's refugees are women and children.

Yet women are often disadvantaged when it comes to selection for resettlement, especially if selection criteria is focused on the ability to resettle easily.

Because of the traditional roles women play in many cultures they are often less educated, have less work skills and are often accompanied by their children.

That is why New Zealand sets aside places for the UNHCR's women-at-risk category, to enable refugee women who would otherwise be ineligible, to be resettled.

New Zealand was the second country to assign a special quota for women at risk, and has been joined in this policy by only Canada, the States and Australia.

New Zealand has long been a leader in its humanitarian policies and so it will remain.

In 1959 we pioneered the resettlement of disabled refugees who would otherwise be ineligible for resettlement, setting off a chain reaction which saw a succession of other countries follow suit and earning praise from the High Commissioner from Refugees who said:

The international significance of New Zealand's humanitarian action (means that) today we can count literally thousands of resettlement opportunities which have grown out of this wide-ranging reappraisal touched off by New Zealand.

Refugees accepted within the quota are entitled to live in NZ permanently and to enjoy the same rights as New Zealand citizens.

They undergo a six week orientation course at the Mangere Refugee Reception Centre, before being settled in the community with the help of sponsors.

Much of what we can do to help the plight of refugees can be attributed to the care, generosity and willingness of refugee organisations and the wider community in sponsoring refugee families and getting them established.

I firmly believe continued co-operation with the UNHCR is the best way for the New Zealand Government to respond to the international refugee problem.

In the past year we have donated grants of $1.25 million to the UNHCR. A further $250,000 has gone towards their work in the Great Lakes region of Africa, and last year $100,000 went to UNHCR work in Zaire.

As you know, the UNHCR quota is separate from the numbers of people who make their own way here to apply for asylum.

I want to stress that New Zealand will not turn away genuine asylum seekers who come here of their own accord seeking refuge from persecution.

It is part of our responsibility as a member of the international community - bound by treaties - to protect refugees, give them basic rights and not to force them to return to the country of persecution.

But even the UNHCR acknowledges the problems posed by the mixture of genuine asylum seekers and of people escaping from economic hardship.

This is an issue I have turned my attention to as Minister of Immigration.

A few weeks ago reports about my intention to address problems associated with asylum seekers raised the concern of some members of your organisation - more through misunderstanding than a genuine difference in our positions.

Asylum seeker numbers have surged upwards in the past few years, mirroring global trends.

In 1993, New Zealand received 347 claims for refugee status. By last year that number rose nearly four-fold to 1310.

That is in addition to the annual 800 refugees referred to us by the UNHCR.

Yet, since 1993, only 28 per cent of claims for refugee status have been assessed as genuine.

There exists what amounts to an appeals loop in New Zealand.

First up an asylum seeker makes an application for refugee status.

If deemed not to be a genuine refugee he can appeal.

If the appeal is unsuccessful, he may simply appeal on another basis, or to another authority and so on, right through to the Minister of Immigration and the High Court.

Some also use delaying tactics like failing to turn up for interviews.

In a worst case scenario a person may deliberately exploit the appeals system to remain in New Zealand for up to six years.

During that time they can claim Government funded services such as social welfare benefits, health and education services and legal aid. There are additional costs for those with dependent children.

The costs to taxpayers of social welfare and the appeals process run into tens of thousands for each asylum seeker each year.

Within this time applicants may become settled, making it very difficult to remove a person especially if their children are born in New Zealand.

Talk of removal sounds very harsh, but remember I am not talking about genuine refugees who seek asylum because they fear for their lives and their freedom.

I'm talking about people who come here under that pretext, when in fact they are simply seeking a life in New Zealand which they perceive as better than their own country.

That person is not a refugee in the honorable sense of the UNHCR programme.

They deny genuine refugees the chance to enter, because we must have regard to the overall numbers of immigrants each year, whatever scheme they may be sourced from.

There are countless cases of this kind, which privacy legislation prevents me from discussing, but some of which have been well covered in the media.

It is believed New Zealand may be a target for non-genuine asylum seekers on the basis that it will take a number of years before removal is unavoidable.

New Zealand is seen as a soft touch.

The number of non-genuine claims means genuine asylum seekers are having to wait a long time before they can rest in the knowledge that they are safe.

What New Zealand needs to do is radically reduce the amount of time it takes to process refugee status applications and appeals so that it does not allow consultants, lawyers and would-be refugees to recycle appeals through a variety of avenues.

The process needs to be fair, impartial and fast for the benefit of everyone.

The surging numbers of people seeking asylum need to know within a few months of their arrival in New Zealand whether they stay or leave.

It is in the interests of both the asylum seekers and ourselves to do that.

I want to see a process put in place which deals with refugee status applications much more quickly than at present.

That would allow us to avoid the problems and expense which inevitably arise out of a long drawn out process.

I recently exchanged ideas on this issue with the Australian Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock.

We have different laws operating but it would make sense for us to take a common approach because we have common border arrangements.

Both Australia and Canada have responded to increasing refugee status claims and are reviewing their systems in recognition of the need to ensure a fair, fast determination process.

You need not fear that New Zealand will follow the Australian policy of detaining asylum seekers who don't have prior refugee status.

Detention camps in New Zealand for people seeking asylum are not appropriate, not necessary and not contemplated.

What we do need to do is send out clear signals to the rest of the world that New Zealand is not a soft touch for those seeking a better life in a more desirable country than their own.

I am in no way suggesting that New Zealand back down from its humanitarian obligations to refugees under international law.

Per capita we contribute more than most countries do, and will continue to do so.

But we must find a way of making the procedures for asylum seekers faster and fairer, and less prone to exploitation.

A system which lacks integrity undermines both the UNHCR programme and the identification of genuine refugees.

We must discourage the so-called economic refugees who are clogging the system, costing tax payers and making life harder for those who really do need our help - the real refugees, the ones you in Amnesty and numerous other organisations are trying to assist.

In that way we can continue to offer humanitarian aid to those who need it most and continue to do our bit to address the plight of the world's refugees.

Amnesty International could play a role in getting more integrity into our system. Such an end is in all our interests.

The Government would welcome your support to ensure our refugee policy has more integrity and focus.