Welcoming Refugees and Migrants

Patrick O’Connor

With what I have, with what you offer, our basket will be full. We who have landed from the canoes of the world, we descendants of the four winds, welcome to Aotearoa. A place for all to stand.

Maori Proverb

New Zealand is one of the most desirable countries in the world as a migrant destination. It reflects the fact that essentially, we are all migrants, and there have been waves of migrants since the beginning. The first big wave came from Polynesia and beyond in the 1300s. Others followed from Europe in the 1800s. More again came later in the 1960-80s; others arrived only last year.

In addition to continuing to receive migrants via complex policies, New Zealand also has a formal agreement with the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) to accept 750 refugees per year. This has reduced from a figure of 800 in 2002. So while our migrant numbers total about 50,000 per year, our refugee quota is only 750. This is a meagre number in a world where 50 million refugees await resettlement! If we pride ourselves on being a generous natured people, surely we could be far more compassionate and welcoming towards our homeless neighbour?

The UNHCR regards New Zealand as a great country for resettling refugees. But requests by UNHCR to successive NZ Governments over several years to increase our quota from 750 to perhaps 1000 or more, have been repeatedly rebuffed. Interestingly, the Tony Abbott Government in Australia recently doubled its annual intake!

Humans usually migrate fundamentally for reasons of economy, adventure, education, employment, family re-unification, improved living standards, global safety, security, weather, and most importantly, children’s futures. However, the case of refugees is different. They are fleeing danger – usually either war, famine, religious or ethnic persecution. Technically refugees are not defined as immigrants. This is a mistake. They should be. This would mean they could be incorporated as an integral part of our overall immigration policy.

New Zealand offers comparatively excellent health, education, social welfare, justice and housing/living policies and practices, although it can be argued resettlement standards are in decline or stagnating in some areas.

Pope Francis on Immigration

Pope Francis is a champion of Immigrants. In his first visit outside Rome after his election, he chose to go to the southern Italian island of Lampedusa, near Sicily, a primary destination for immigrants from Africa. In 2014 alone, more than 3000 died making the treacherous journey in fragile boats. Most were escaping war, destitution, persecution and famine at home. Francis spent time among them in their camps and celebrated Mass for them. He reminded them that Mary, Joseph and Jesus were all migrants escaping terror when they fled to Egypt. In the liturgy, he prayed that ‘all would have a heart which will embrace immigrants. God will judge us on how we have treated the most needy.’

In a later address to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, 25 November 2014, he described Europe’s immigration policies as ‘elderly and haggard’ and called for urgent reform. ‘Inaction on immigration concerns risked furthering slave labour conditions and exacerbating social conditions.’ He challenged European leaders ‘not to allow the Mediterranean to become a vast cemetery.’

Cultural Orientation

New Zealand is an increasingly ethnically diverse nation with over 220 ethnicities dwelling here. There are approximately 170 in Christchurch alone. There are many more in Auckland. That is a huge diversity of peoples already in this country.

Such diversity offers many benefits but also poses challenges, particularly as we have rather ad hoc integration policies. For example, there is no national languages policy. A draft policy, acclaimed favourably by experts in the field, was shelved in 1991. Such a definitive policy is urgently needed.

The satisfactory acquisition of English language by non-English-speaking migrants and refugees is paramount, as is the maintenance of the mother tongue of migrant/refugee newcomers. Such programmes should be universally free and compulsory. Internationally, language experts agree that the satisfactory acquisition of a second language is greatly enhanced by the learner’s fluency in their mother tongue. Since humans’ capacity to acquire language peaks at about age 10, first language maintenance policies should aim at pre-school and primary children.

Also of much importance is the compulsory attendance by newcomers at cultural orientation courses where such topics as the following could be covered:

Te Tiriti O Waitangi, overview of NZ history, education, family/community services, NZ justice system/basic law/policing, tax/small/business, human rights/race relations, employment, the health system, and central and local government

These courses would be offered with an interpreter in various languages and expert speakers in the various topics. English and cultural orientation are fundamental for smooth integration and benefit all stakeholders.

Cultural and linguistic differences as well as similarities are to be celebrated and the host society needs to move beyond the indulgence in the superficial (dragon dances and Kebabs) to genuine, deep, sophisticated understanding of settling cultures. Local and Central Government policies that promote inter-cultural understanding could be introduced. This should start with well-designed programmes from primary school through to secondary, in all aspects of diversity.

Culture – a definition

Culture is what holds a community together giving a common framework of meaning. It includes how people communicate with each other, how we make decisions, how we structure our families and what we think is important. It expresses our values towards land and time, and our attitudes towards work and play, good and evil, reward and punishment.

Culture is preserved in language, symbols and customs and celebrated in art, music, drama, literature, religion and social gatherings. It constitutes the collective memory of the people and the collective heritage which will be handed down to future generations.

Education curriculum designers also need to promote vigorously the study and acquisition of a second/third language in schools. We now have free trade agreements with China and Korea and soon with India, so linguistic dexterity is multi-dimensional in its benefits. Of major importance is the enhancement of race relations in our country. The time to act is now.

The commitment to inter-cultural development is incumbent upon all stakeholders – the newcomers, their families and communities and the host society.

Let’s Bury the Myths

Established New Zealand citizens must consign to the dustbin the stereotype of immigrants and particularly refugees being a burden on our country and its resources. Some refugee communities have 90% – 95% employment rates, and all are strongly committed to seeking, gaining and maintaining work. Further training and study are vigorously pursued. For example, New Zealand Somali refugee children have gained over 60 university degrees in the last 5 years, in addition to scores of other tertiary qualifications from hairdressing to plumbing to graphic design. Refugees have acquired PhDs, and occupy senior positions throughout the country. Scores of refugees are operating businesses, and have succeeded despite English being another language to learn.

New Zealand’s United Nations quota for refugees should be significantly increased in what would be a win/win situation.

Refugees are not a burden, they are a gift. They are all People of God, our brothers and sisters in the human family, loved by God, redeemed in Christ’s blood. They should be welcomed with open arms.

The Way Forward

New Zealand has an ageing population and we need people – particularly young people – who will likely have more than the current average 1.5 children per child-bearing age female. Young refugee arrivals should be immediately trained in English and academic/technical skills to contribute, so that we have a dual refugee/immigration policy that benefits all stakeholders. Investment, not cost is the key.

Migrant and refugee people are highly motivated to contribute to their adopted country and possess a strong work ethic. The global trade culture is expanding from our traditional markets, and we, as a small vulnerable nation, should take advantage of the human resource we have among our newcomers.

They are a resource worth investing in much more comprehensively to yield benefits for our evolving society. We need to embrace the diverse tapestry that our nation already is in 2015, and welcome its further development.

Patrick O’Connor is the founder (1991) and director of PEETO, the Multi-Cultural Learning Centre in Christchurch, which works with immigrants, refugees and international students. Email: – patrick.o@xtra.co.nz

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