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Donald Trump in front of a New Zealand flag

SocietyMay 12, 2017

Is our refugee quota really all that bad? Yup, it’s Trump-level bad

Donald Trump in front of a New Zealand flag

When you crunch the numbers, the feebleness of NZ’s intake becomes shamefully clear, argues Murdoch Stephens, head of the campaign to double the quota

For the first few days of Trump’s presidency, Bill English fumbled around trying to get the tone right. When Trump instituted his first Muslim ban and cuts to refugee numbers, English was AWOL for more than 24 hours. When asked what he thought of the policy he told reporters that we were not planning on doing the same thing here. Guyon Espiner laughed: “It wasn’t really my question was it?”

But the irony of English’s response is that in effect he doesn’t need to implement the same policies here because New Zealand’s refugee intake per capita and selection criteria is already nearly identical to Trump’s heavily criticised ban.

The racist – sorry, regionalist – side of how we select refugees

Trump’s ham-fisted attempt to ban immigration from certain Muslim-majority countries was a knee-jerk response to perceived security threats. Remember how he said he was going to ban Muslim immigration until he worked out “what the hell was going on”?

In New Zealand we’re not so brash. But we do limit refugees from coming here based on the regions they live in.

In 2009 we also instituted a ban on new refugees from the Middle East and Africa, unless their family was already here. The government cynically framed it as an “opportunity” for family reunification. This policy has been in place for eight years and has led to a slashing of refugee numbers from the Middle East by half. It has affected those from Africa even more as we’ve cut our intake from around 200 people per year to, on average, less than 20.

The issue is so embarrassing for the National government that they have had to redact both their internal discussions and advice from the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) on the matter. I am confident that the redacted middle column in the table below will have the UNHCR’s recommendations to significantly increase our intake from Africa above the 1% taken in 2014/15.

From the June 3, 2016 paper for the Cabinet to consider on refugee resettlement

Perhaps Trump should take a leaf out of the NZ National Party’s book – you can ban the people you don’t want coming and even cite security concerns as long as you (a) offer some plausible sounding policy around helping other refugee populations in another region and (b) frame it as offering opportunities for family reunification. I’m so annoyed by this policy I put together a feed of the relevant government documents from 2009 until today showing how they made the decision.

Refugees by the numbers: English and Trump

But as John Key used to say, a refugee is a refugee, and he doesn’t worry too much about where they come from. So let’s consider the raw numbers. Note that I’ve going to adjust these on a per capita basis to make up for the US’s much larger population.

If we just take the refugee quotas on their own, Trump’s slashing of Obama’s quota by more than half – from 110,000 to 50,000 – brings them to just 15 people, per capita, fewer than us. Since New Zealand aims for +/- 10% of our quota we actually took less than the Trump figure in half of the years in the last decade.

Refugee quota

Bill English’s New Zealand: 750

Donald Trump’s US, adjusted to NZ population: 735

In a cynical move designed to make our tiny refugee quota look less like a Trumpian horror show, immigration minister Michael Woodhouse has started trying to include other aspects of our humanitarian intake within the official quota. So let’s take a look at those expanded numbers, which would include asylum seekers and the Syrian emergency intake. The numbers now look even worse for us.

Refugee Quota + asylum seekers + emergency intake

Bill English’s New Zealand: 1,111

Donald Trump’s US, adjusted to NZ population: 1,119

(NB I exclude the Refugee Family Support Category here because though the US has similar options for family to be reunited, they aren’t as clearly limited in a quota as New Zealand’s is. If anything that means that they offer more opportunities than us, not less. In addition these people are sponsored and looked after by their families so the government is much less responsible for them than other refugees.)

New Zealand does not need to cut our refugee quota by more than half to be at the levels of Trump because we are already taking fewer refugees than Trump’s America. Bill English is not Donald Trump, but based on the numbers of refugees offered protection, they may as well be the same man.

‘Give English a chance, he’s just getting started’

“But surely this is unfair,” some might say. “Bill English has been in the job for only a few months and hasn’t had a chance to prove his compassionate/conservative credentials.” This might be a fair point if it weren’t for two facts.

First, English was second in command for the entire Key term. He sat at the Cabinet table as they decided on our pitiful response to the Syria crisis and the tiny increase set for 1 July 2018, which didn’t even make up for population growth since the quota was last set. That increase was the same that Winston Peters lobbied for, less than ACT suggested, and much less than the major opposition parties

Second, when English was last in charge of the National Party he made his position on refugees clear. National policy at the time, under the watchful eye of an almost youthful immigration spokesperson, Murray McCully, was to cut the refugee quota from 750 to 500 places.

A lot of people want to believe that Bill English is a compassionate conservative whose faith will shine through in the end. I once hoped that, too. But when Pope Francis claims the refugee and migrant crisis is the greatest tragedy since WW2, and English sticks with his party’s Trumpesque policies, that hope quickly fades.

Murdoch Stephens leads the Doing Our Bit campaign to double New Zealand’s refugee quota

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