How far does our humanity extend?

By Rebecca Farquhar
Closing our borders saved lives. Yet for hundreds of refugees, it also put them in limbo.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has suspended its Refugee Quota Programme as part of its efforts to mitigate the threat of Covid-19. With more than 150 border closures globally, the prospects of those seeking asylum in New Zealand have been, and remain, uncertain.

From 1 July 2020, the Government increased the quota for the annual intake of refugees to 1,500 per financial year (an increase from 1,000). The effects of Covid-19 have rendered the Government unable to meet this target. Of this figure, only 795 refugees arrived in New Zealand before the closure of the country’s borders to international travellers in March. This has left 205 refugees in a state of suspension in overseas asylum countries. Despite the extension to the quota programme, there has been no decision as to when the intake programme will resume.

The dangers of straying from the responsibility of the refugee intake programme are many and worrying. Rachel O’Connor, general migration manager for Red Cross New Zealand, describes the situation in which pending refugees find themselves: “Without actually having set foot on New Zealand soil those people are almost Kiwis. They no longer have a country of their own … They are just so close, but yet so far away from being able to realise that.” The stresses of Covid-19 have also exacerbated an already protracted waiting period. Under normal circumstances, it can take up to two years to be granted refuge in New Zealand.

This drawn-out and dire ‘waiting game’ puts the lives of refugees at risk. Delay can mean death, being drawn into violent conflicts or persecution. With each delay comes an increase in the number of those seeking sanctuary in countries such as New Zealand, and an associated increase in risk.

Now that community transmission of the virus has been eliminated, the Red Cross is urging for the restart of the refugee quota programme on humanitarian grounds. Further, it wants to see the Government play catch-up by increasing New Zealand’s refugee quota when the programme restarts. Indeed, while relaunching the programme at the present time may be untenable and even dangerous, there are steps which New Zealand should take in order to remain firm to its commitments to refugees and to ensure that this limbo is just that: temporary.

The first and most important step for ensuring the safety of refugees is to increase the programme quota. A temporary increase alone would have innumerable benefits. Refugees are particularly vulnerable to the effects of Covid-19 as they live in tightly-confined camps and communities which make social distancing an impossibility. The dangers of such living conditions have presented themselves in the Maldives, where the virus has pervaded migrant workers’ communities.

Secondly, it is the Government’s responsibility to ensure that those refugees who have been granted refugee status in New Zealand have safe and feasible means of reaching the country. One challenge of restarting the programme in the time of Coronavirus is the willingness and capability of the country of origin to allow refugees to leave the country. Travel restrictions mean that some countries may not permit internal travel or that neighbouring states may not allow refugees to cross their borders. While this is a significant hurdle, it is not impossible to overcome. Indeed, the UNHCR and IOM can arrange visas to exit origin countries, as well as departures and flights. Moreover, Immigration New Zealand is currently working on the establishment of necessary health controls and ensuring that travel routes are available to facilitate refugee movements.

Finally, thorough health checks and protective measures are essential to allow the safe arrival and integration of refugees. However, as O’Connor points out, such measures are already in place: “[Refugees] have health checks offshore and onshore. They have six weeks at the Māngere Resettlement Centre, which is 10 minutes down the road from the airport and built to quarantine people, if required.”

New Zealand is capable of staying true to the responsibilities of the refugee intake programme. In this time of global disaster, the concern with welcoming international travellers into our borders is valid. However, the dire circumstances of refugees waiting for asylum outweighs these concerns, especially in light of New Zealand’s ability to ensure their safe integration. It is in such times of need that the strength and leadership of New Zealand shines, and it is now more than ever that refugees are relying on these qualities.