One Question Quiz
An Amnesty International demonstration outside the Beehive, 2015
An Amnesty International demonstration outside the Beehive, 2015

PoliticsMay 28, 2019

A short history of New Zealand’s racist refugee policy

An Amnesty International demonstration outside the Beehive, 2015
An Amnesty International demonstration outside the Beehive, 2015

PM Jacinda Ardern will soon have the chance to reverse policy that prioritises Asia-Pacific immigrants over refugees from Africa and the Middle East. But how did that policy get made in the first place?

After the attacks on Muslims at two mosques in Christchurch, attention has returned to restrictions on African and Middle Eastern refugees which even our immigration minister describes as ‘discriminatory’. In the coming weeks prime minister Jacinda Ardern has the chance to reverse the policy. But doing so requires her to convince her coalition partner.

The Spinoff has previously covered this issue on at least five occasions. Now I give you the definitive timeline of how one of the most racist immigration policies of the last 30 years came to be.


The Immigration Act (1987) moved the priorities for immigration away from any focus on the region and race of people to come to New Zealand. The focus was now on the skills of migrants and the match of an immigrant’s occupation to local needs, as well as a smaller family and humanitarian streams. In the same year a refugee quota was formalised at an annual intake of 800 people.


Foreign affairs and trade minister Don McKinnon authorises the first Somali refugees to come to New Zealand. In previous years the refugee quota had primarily been for the last refugees of the Indochina wars. In the past the country had taken refugees from Africa, though these were ethnically South Asian people expelled from Uganda by Idi Amin. Over the coming years, New Zealand also welcomes significant numbers of refugees from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan.

A South Sudan child has her arm measured to assess her malnourishment at a health centre in northern Bahr el Ghazal, South Sudan (Image: Simon Day/World Vision).


Latin American refugees – almost exclusively Colombians in Ecuador – begin to be welcomed to New Zealand. Up to this point New Zealand had been resettling refugees from Africa, the Middle East and Asia-Pacific in an even split.


The election of the fifth National government sees a much publicised pivot to the Pacific for Murray McCully’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.


A proposal is floated to take either half or all of New Zealand’s refugee quota from Asia-Pacific. If the latter was chosen then Africans, Middle Easterners and Latin Americans would be completely excluded.

Officials are cautious and note, “these proposals go against the UNHCR’s global objective to only offer resettlement to refugees in the greatest need, the majority of which are currently in Africa and the Middle East”. The Ministry of Justice weighs in and are most opposed to the 100% focus on Asia-Pacific as it “could be seen to discriminate indirectly on the basis of ethnic or national origin”.

Sri Lankan asylum seekers hold signs and plead for assistance as they seek asylum to New Zealand onboard the MV Alicia, after refusing to leave their boat for four days on July 13, 2011 in Bintan, Sumatra, Indonesia. (Photo by Yuli Seperi/Getty Images)


New Zealand will keep taking refugees from all four regions, but focus 50% of the quota on Asia-Pacific. Here’s when the policy is first announced: all refugees from Asia-Pacific and Latin America will be eligible, but African and Middle Eastern refugees must have family-links to New Zealand to be welcome.

These policies lead to a two-pronged cut to African and Middle Eastern refugee intakes. First, the total numbers are cut from around a third of the intake to 15% and 17% respectively. Second, as they will find out when they try to implement this policy, the family-link proves ‘overly restrictive’. In plain English: the places can’t be filled.


Policy that had once been framed as possibly discriminatory has gone through the wash and is now presented as “opportunities for family reunification for onshore African and Middle Eastern refugee communities”.

In the first year of the family-link policy, only a quarter of African places are filled. The other places are reallocated to Asia-Pacific. Overall, three-quarters of all refugees come from Asia-Pacific (mostly from Myanmar) in the year.


As New Zealand tries to get support from African countries for our UN security council bid, I publish criticism of how these restrictions may harm our international reputation. In what was a long term trend before the Christchurch mosque attacks, the issue proves too complicated for most media outlets.


Campaigning around the refugee crisis leads National to allocate 750 emergency places to refugees from Syria, regardless of family links. These emergency places mean that the Middle East intake is much higher than the Africa intake. Subsequent family reunification and emergency quotas outside of the core intake mean that Middle East refugees remain around 10%-15% of total quota.


This year sees the first official review of the refugee quota since 2013. While the total number of quota places grows from 750 to 1000, official advice to get rid of the family-link policy is ignored by cabinet.


Trump’s Muslim ban leads to comparisons to New Zealand’s own quieter, but equally discriminatory policy. With the election approaching, Green Party co-leader James Shaw asks prime minister Bill English whether he is aware of the discrimination. English’s first reply is that we are taking Syrians. Shaw repeats the question with the focus on Muslim refugees and English says “No, I am not aware of that”.

Though the Greens campaign on removing the restrictions, the issue does not feature in coalition or confidence and supply agreements for the new government


The new government is established, and while it takes almost a year for Labour to negotiate and announce their policy of a doubled quota through cabinet, the restrictions on African and Middle Eastern refugees remain.

World Vision focuses on South Sudan for their annual appeal and extend this to advocating for a fair quota. Disappointed that only 12 refugees have been resettled from South Sudan since 2011, Clench Enoka meets with the immigration minister to push for the restrictions to end.


The terrorist attacks on two mosques in Christchurch bring moments of unity and questions around other racial prejudice in New Zealand. Speaking to more than ten thousand at the Basin Reserve in Wellington, Gayaal Iddamalgoda calls “upon the government to immediately remove the restriction, the effective ban, on Middle Eastern and African refugees based on bogus security concerns.”


Behind the scenes, sources indicate a split. The Greens actively oppose the restrictions – it was in their 2017 policy – and New Zealand First seems to support it, while Labour and Jacinda Ardern await the imminent cabinet paper on the refugee quota.

In the coming weeks Ardern has a choice to make. She can stand up for the kind of unity and inclusiveness that she spoke of so well after the mosque attacks in Christchurch. Or she can defer to the lethargic racism of a decade-long policy that considers a continent and a half to be irredeemably risky. It is a simple question, but one which troubles our age: do all people still count as human?

Murdoch Stephens is a lecturer, publisher and advocate. For a more detailed overview of the family-link debacle see his article in Policy Quarterly.

Keep going!