Key defends ‘disappointing’ refugee quota at opening of new resettlement facility

The refurbished and expanded Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre was reopened today at a ceremony attended by Prime Minister John Key, Labour Leader Andrew Little and Minister for Immigration Michael Woodhouse. 

Originally built as barracks for US soldiers during WWII, the centre functions as a location for housing and acclimatising refugees who undergo a six-week program designed to assist them with starting their new life in Aotearoa.  The programme includes language classes, mental and physical health check-ups and information about New Zealand culture and values.  The programme also educates refugees about tangata whenua and tikanga Māori. 

Many refugees have found encouraging similarities between Māori culture and their own.

Former refugee Faisal Farghaly says, “I love the Maori culture. From the beginning I come to New Zealand, they make us a ceremony here and we go to Marae.  The Maori culture is similar to our culture back in Sudan, in Africa.  They have courage, they have the very important things and we respect that very much.

Now I’m trying to study the language of the Maori.  It’s a very, very nice culture.  Because I’m Muslim, the Maori have a lot of things similar with Islam.”

In 2013 The government announced a $24.7 million rebuild of the centre in recognition of the facility’s ageing structures and a growing international refugee crisis which now affects 60 million refugees and internally displaced people around the globe.

Minister of Immigration Michael Woodhouse says, “The original facilities at Mangere were built during the Second World War and were well past their economic life.  The new facilities are a vast improvement and will give refugees the best possible start to their new life in New Zealand.”

Despite this, the government has received criticism from advocacy groups after announcing the much-anticipated expansion to New Zealand’s refugee quota, fixed at 750 individuals for 29 years, would be limited to an extra 250 people from 2018.  Although the government has also announced two stand-alone emergency intakes of 250 Syrian refugees in response to the Syrian crisis.

John Key defends the limited increase, “We’ve always said really, from our perspective, the most important thing is that when people come here they get complete wrap around service, and that’s everything from housing support, educational support, and of course the mental health services that they might require.

 So, yes, of course we can always take more over time but the real emphasis is to make sure we can do a great job of them when they come so that they do feel as if they are integrated into the community.

We take nearly 1500 at the moment.  If you think about all of the different categories in which we take refugees... 300 as part of family reunification and 125 to 175 that claim asylum so we’re pretty much at 1500 at the moment.  We’re not ruling out that in the future we might take more.”

However, the reunified family members and asylum seekers included by Key in order to boost numbers of the government’s proposed total from 1000 (from 2018) to 1500 do not receive the benefits of the six week Mangere course and some associated health, education and employment assistance. 

In contrast, both The Labour Party and The Green Party have expressed support for raising the core quota to  1500. 

Andrew Little says, “We can double the quota of refugees.  We’re at 750, that figure was set 29 years ago and our population has increased.  Other countries are doing a lot more than we are. 

We can do more and we can do better and with this fantastic new facility, we’ve got the means to do that and achieve the same successful rate of resettlement we’ve had for decades. 

At a time when humanitarian crises are as bad as they are, actually, every other country has to be doing a lot more.  We could do a lot more, still be successful and put these facilities to good use.”

Aotearoa is one of around 28 countries that take part in the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) regular resettlement programme.  Since the Second World War Aotearoa has settled over 33,000 refugees.   

The Refugee Quota Programme is decided by the government in three-year cycles with the most recent announcement regarding the 2018 expanded quota on 13 June 2016.  When pressed by media Key acknowledged that there was room to further expand Aotearoa’s commitments,

“I think New Zealanders can be proud of what we’re doing.  I think we’ve always had an open heart.  I’m not ruling out that we wouldn’t do more in the future but I do stand very strongly by the view that we have to provide that intense world class service for people.”