Crosses mark murdered farmers in Ysterberg., South Africa. Photo: GULSHAN KHAN/AFP/Getty Images

Why New Zealand can’t accept South African farmers in the refugee quota

The new government needs to roll back a policy that stops Africans claiming refugee status – and undermines the human rights at the foundation of our refugee policy, argues Murdoch Stephens.

Politics make strange bedfellows and the campaign to double New Zealand’s refugee quota has been bunking down with some truly odd folk as of late.

Australians on the far right have been insisting New Zealand increase our quota to match theirs – roughly four times our intake on a per capita basis. If we want the right to comment on their deplorable treatment of refugees on Nauru and Manus Island, they say, we first need to increase our quota. These keyboard warriors seem reluctant to accept my thanks, as evidenced by their confused responses to my tweets of solidarity. (In fact multiple accounts making these claims have been suspended for reasons unstated by Twitter).

Another bizarre phenomenon has been Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton making noises about offering humanitarian protection for a group of African refugees under threat of being displaced from the land they own. If that all sounds quite unlike Dutton one needs barely dig deeper to see that the refugees in question are ten thousand white South African farmers, not the South Sudanese or Eritreans.

In New Zealand, some social media users reflexively respond to the campaign to double the quota in a similar manner. They offer a qualified “yes”, but only if we bring in members of a specific group who they feel are both persecuted and more similar to the unexamined mass that is New Zealand culture. Sometimes the special group are persecuted Christians; other times they’re simply white, like Ukranians displaced from the east of the country. In recent times the “yes, but” lands ends with a reference to the same South African farmers that Dutton is fast-tracking into Australia.

It’s important to be clear that, as with the right to free speech, the right to refugee protection is universal. Refugee protection must be afforded to every person who has had to flee their country because of persecution or a legitimate fear of the same. There is absolutely no reason that a white South African farmer who fits the criteria would be excluded from becoming a refugee. This is the strength of universal human rights: it doesn’t matter whether you’re rich or poor, brown or pink, indigenous or from colonising stock. If the UNHCR, or a signatory to their convention, accepts your claims of persecution then you are a refugee.

I’ve often been tempted to communicate a little known detail of New Zealand’s refugee quota policy to those wanting these farmers to come through the refugee quota. This relatively new detail, established in 2010, means that it is presently impossible to use the refugee quota to welcome a cohort of persecuted white South Africans into New Zealand.

Let me explain: for a white South African farmer to become a refugee, the farmer needs to flee not only their home but also their country. Let’s imagine the farmer in question has made his or her way to Zimbabwe or Mozambique. They don’t need to be actually attacked before fleeing, but need evidence of why they legitimately fear persecution. The circumstances for some people to prove fear is lower than others. For example, back in 2013 Sweden announced that all Syrians had a legitimate fear of persecution and would be accepted. By contrast, many states are currently sending Afghan refugees home (even if they’ve never lived there) citing that the country is safe. Potential Afghan refugees are now finding that they need very strong evidence of specific persecution to be granted protection.

Let’s imagine the farmer in question is able to produce evidence of persecution – the confiscation of land and accompanied violence certainly lends itself to such claims, though as recently as 2015 racial prejudice has not been accepted as compelling enough in and of itself in the Australian context.

My argument is not that these farmers do not face persecution. Some certainly do. But the argument is not about whether or not they face persecution but whether or not they can be accepted as refugees if one farmer meets the requirements. So the next step would have the farmer presents his or her evidence to the UNHCR and that testimony or documentation is accepted. Of course, in many countries just getting these interviews and acceptance is a multi-year process. But let’s imagine their refugee status has been granted.

Refugees are unable to choose which country they might be resettled to, but let’s imagine the UNHCR are eyeing up potential resettlement states for refugees. The main countries using this system are those who are a long way from conflict zones so they receive fewer asylum seekers – the United States, Australia, Canada and New Zealand are all in this category.

Let’s now imagine that the UNHCR asks New Zealand to use a portion of the annual refugee quota to resettle a few hundred of these South Africans. This is where the problem emerges: New Zealand’s refugee quota policy for both Africa and the Middle East requires refugees from these regions to already have a family connection to New Zealand. This requirement does not apply to refugees from Asia-Pacific or the Americas.

And so it is currently impossible for the white South African farmer residing in Zimbabwe, who has been approved by the UNHCR, to come to New Zealand under the refugee quota. There are a few other exceptions the farmer or our government could take advantage of, which I outline in in this May’s edition of Policy Quarterly, but at first blush they are out of luck.

It is also worth noting that a late 2016 change to immigration policy means people holding a South African passport need to apply for a visa before coming to New Zealand, drastically cutting their ability to become refugees through the asylum system. South Africans (not necessarily white South Africans) made the list of top ten countries for asylum seeker claims, though not approvals, in three of the five years before this change came into effect. Since the changes, as one might expect, they have not. Though this policy was not explicitly designed to prevent South African asylum seekers, immigration policy and law is full of these kinds of side-effects.

The imagined example of the white South African farmer might fascinate ethno-nationalists who feel a deeper cultural or racial affinity to these fellow humans than to black Africans. But for the rest of us it is just a hypothetical, since the vast majority of those fearing persecution have not yet fled their countries. In contrast there is the current displacement that means millions of people across Africa and the Middle East have no protection, nor prospect of protection, from a state. Despite the clear need, New Zealand’s intake from Africa has dropped from about 30% of the quota just over a decade ago to just 1% of the quota in recent years.

As with Australia, it is actually quite unlikely that these white South Africans would emigrate via the refugee quota. They will simply come in as immigrants. South Africa is the fifth most common country of birth for people residing in New Zealand as of 2013; a very small number of those people came through refugee channels. The relatively well-off often find other means to escape persecution without years in limbo.

For any partisan spirit bursting from leftish hearts, it is worth noting that it was a National government in the early 1990s that began welcoming refugees from Africa. It was also a National immigration minister – Aussie Malcolm – who laid the foundations of the current resettlement system.

The task now falls to the Labour-led coalition government to reverse this policy. They were the party in 1987 to go beyond a race-based immigration policy. It’s time to renew that commitment by focusing our refugee quota on those most in need – without pernicious requirements such as the family-link, which has slashed our intake of Africans and Middle Eastern peoples.

Murdoch Stephens is the head of the Doing Our Bit campaign to double New Zealand’s refugee quota.

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