The global refugee crisis: How NZ is gearing up to help refugees on the world stage

The world’s very first Global Refugee Forum will launch in December in Geneva – bringing countries together to strengthen the response to the refugee crisis as the world sees the highest levels of displacement on record.  

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The UN’s refugee regional representative sat down with 1 NEWS to explain what New Zealand is doing to help, and what needs to happen. Source: 1 NEWS

Louise Aubin, the regional representative for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, spoke to 1 NEWS Now about New Zealand’s role in supporting refugees. Ms Aubin was in New Zealand visiting Christchurch, which she described as a "significant emblem of compassion towards refugees".

"It's an exciting time," Ms Aubin says. "The global compact is a very strong message that more needs to be done to improve the lives of refugees and support the communities that host them."

The forum is seeking to cement and mobilise the Global Compact on Refugees, aiming to ease pressure on countries taking large numbers of refugees, enhance refugee self-reliance and support people who are able to return to their original country safely. 

There are currently more than 25 million refugees in the world, largely left in limbo for an "extremely long period" before returning home if their country is safe, settling in their country of asylum or being resettled somewhere else. 

"With every day that passes, that's a day lost for someone who is worried about the fact their boy or girl is out of school. With every day that passes without proper documentation, a refugee is left exposed to exploitation or abuse. With every day that passes without a job a refugee is left having to receive assistance rather than being self-reliant," she says. 

"They need access to jobs, their children need to be in school, more than four million refugee children today are out of school, we need to rectify that situation and it's urgent.

"The refugee status is a protective status, but it's not supposed to be a label for life. It really is supposed to be a transition of getting back to a normal family life," Ms Aubin says.

At the forum, pledges and commitments can be made to achieve tangible benefits for refugees and host communities.

"I'm hoping the forum will be a good platform for New Zealand to showcase its good practices and what it wants to persevere with," she says. 

Is New Zealand pulling its weight? 

"The response by New Zealand has been tremendous," she says. "New Zealand has historically always been very responsive to those needs - women at risk, children who need a safe home and resume a normal life, people who are heightened risk in their place of asylum, LGBTI refugees, refugee communities representing a minority.

"New Zealand, continue what you're doing well: the support to communities, the resettlement based on protection needs of refugees, good donorship, responsive and listening to refugees once settled here in NZ," Ms Aubin says. 

She said New Zealand's refugee community are a dynamic group with a "wonderful initiative" to bring to light issues faced.

One of those issues is the family link policy, which explicitly prevents refugees from Africa and the Middle East coming to New Zealand unless they already have family living here. It has been labelled by Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon as "racist and discriminatory".

Source: Q+A

"If there are ways of improving resettlement policy in New Zealand, I'm quite confident those discussions are going to be well heard," Ms Aubin says. 

"We certainly want to see a policy that is open and responsive to the protection needs we would be putting forward - that we have a very open conversation with New Zealand. Whatever can be done to make sure there are no impediments to bringing refugee to New Zealand based on the needs of that person, all the better. We will pursue this conversation with New Zealand."

Guled Mire, a prominent refugee and Muslim community advocate, is attending the forum and says New Zealand needs to take it as a new opportunity to be a part of the solution to the crisis.

Guled Mire speaking at UNHCR's NGO consultation. Source: UNHCR/Susan Hopper

"But, it's important that we practise what we preach as a country. This means removing the racist and discriminatory family link policy, which makes it nearly impossible for refugees from African and Middle Eastern backgrounds to resettle in New Zealand.

"I look forward to returning back to Geneva and playing a part in offering durable and lasting solutions to a worsening humanitarian crisis. In the face of growing negative narratives about refugees, it is important that we take steps now more than ever before, to be the kind and compassionate nation we want to be, at home and overseas."

Amnesty International policy manager Annaliese Johnston described the forum as an important milestone in the international community's effort to respond to the global refugee crisis.

"New Zealand has a proud history and international reputation as a country that, whilst small in numbers, is not afraid of innovation and boldness, particularly in tackling some of the biggest issues of our time and championing human rights," Ms Johnston said. "But when it comes to refugee resettlement, we are not doing our share.

"Our refugee intake is tiny in comparison to other similar countries. New Zealand is still not doing its bit on this global crisis.

"This is an opportunity for the Government, post-Christchurch, to combat divisiveness and be a leader in building more welcoming communities."

Amnesty urged the Government to make the community sponsorship pilot permanent as part of the pledges, with Ms Johnston saying it was "crucially important". It let organisations sponsor and bring refugees into the country on top of the quota and it saw 24 refugees resettled in Nelson, Hamilton, Timaru and Christchurch.

"This is also an opportunity to ensure that our refugee policy is fair, which would include removing the arbitrary family link policy."

Ms Johnston said it is vital the Government listens to communities and people who have sought refuge in New Zealand in developing their approach at the forum. 

"Leading internationally also means meaningfully representing our diverse communities and their voices, so that we really can have a compassionate and inclusive New Zealand."

A spokesperson for Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway said in the lead up to the forum, officials would be providing advice to ministers on New Zealand’s engagement, including potential options for commitments.

The agencies would be "checking in with NGOs" around potential commitments.

What is the forum trying to achieve?

Ms Aubin says the compact recognises that along the line, global responsibility sharing of hosting refugees "has gone a little bit wrong".

Source: 1 NEWS

"Take a country like Bangladesh that hosts more than a million refugees at the moment," Ms Aubin says. "They need as much in terms of support for education, to be able to include refugee children in schools, they need support in improving health services and access to resources.

"Over time more needs to be done, and a country like New Zealand recognises this," she says. 

"You're compassionate people, you're welcoming people with a long tradition of hosting refugees. New Zealand will be looking to how it can contribute and do more, recognising that most refugees are still in need of solutions, still in need of funding, support and, importantly, galvanising community support for refugees." 

She was asked if doing more included addressing situations such as in South Sudan, where thousands of people have been killed since conflict broke out in 2013. Four million people have been forced from their homes, with Uganda and Sudan both hosting more than 800,000 people each. New Zealand has taken nine people through the refugee quota, according to records by the Red Cross. 

"It's what the compact is trying to address, there are realities, geographic realities for one," Ms Aubin says. 

"States bordering countries that have been at war or are fragile have seen considerable numbers of people forcibly displaced, have largely been keeping their borders open to be able to protect people in need of refuge. 

"What countries like New Zealand can do... they can take refugees, individuals and families who are most in need of a real shot of long-term protection solution.

"No one country can respond to a refugee crisis alone, no one country can solve a refugee crisis, it really has to be a solidarity effort."