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NZ 'lucky to have the refugee community' – Ardern calls for shift in view of refugees

"We are lucky to have the refugee community we have in New Zealand," the Prime Minister said today as she called for a shift in how the country views people who've fled persecution to come to our shores for a safer life. 

However, Jacinda Ardern fell short of condemning the controversial policy which explicitly prevents refugees from Africa and the Middle East coming to New Zealand, unless they already had family living in New Zealand.

The issue was highlighted on TVNZ1's Sunday, that found New Zealand's main refugee quota has been heavily affected by the policy.

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New Zealand’s refugee policy discriminates against those from Africa and the Middle East. Experts say it could breach our human rights obligations. Source: Sunday

"Instead of having a conversation where somehow it is only New Zealand that is doing something for others, we need to think much more about what our refugee community brings us, which is an enormous contribution," Ms Ardern said today at the World Refugee Photo Exhibition in Wellington.

"The backgrounds and skills and diversity that we benefit from having, I think that narrative needs to change."

She recalled two refugee camps she visited when she formally led International Union of Socialist Youth. 

"One was in Nepal. It was home to thousands of Buginese refugees. We have a number of refugees from Bhutan that live in New Zealand. The second camp I visited was in Tindouf (Algeria) and it was full of people from Western Sahara who had spent over 30 years living in camps there. 

"Those experiences gave me a little bit of insight, only the tiniest insight."

"New Zealand will not always be the choice for people who have experienced conflict and war or persecution, but we have a duty to provide that safety and opportunity to those we are lucky enough to call home when they travel here."

Ms Ardern said New Zealand needed to change the way it views its refugee community, needing to acknowledge the contribution they bring. 

She said a change in mindset would benefit especially the young refugee community, "who instead of growing up with a label that may sound like somehow they are a burden on our society, they are not". 

"We are lucky to have the refugee community we have in New Zealand."

Despite the Prime Minister's call to shift the way refugees are viewed, she did not go as far as to condem the rule that prevents refugees from Africa and the Middle East who do not have family members living in New Zealand. 

"We do have some existing settings that will be part of the review that is done on a regular basis around our refugee policy, that is something that is part of a cycle, now as a new Government we will be looking at in the very near future."

When asked if the policy was racist, Ms Ardern said, "I wouldn't describe it that way, you could have an argument over whether or not it should remain, and we're looking at our settings now". 

The Prime Minister was then asked if it was discriminatory. 

"Keeping in mind it's around familial backgrounds, so it doesn't stop people from those countries being part of the refugee numbers, but it does have criteria around existing links."

She said the rule would be one of the factors looked at in the upcoming review. 

On TVNZ1's Q+A last week, Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway said the decision is before Government "on our next three year programme, the family link decision is part of that". 

Mr Lee-Galloway had not received "advise to that extent" of security concerns of refugees from Africa or the Middle East. "This is our opportunity to review that setting, it is the right time to do it."

On if there was cross-party support in changing the rule, Mr Lees-Galloway said he was in discussion with NZ First and the Green Party.

On Sky News Australia, NZ First leader Winston Peters said he supported the rules as they currently stand, "and they are not racist", he added.

On TVNZ1's Breakfast last month, Mr Lees-Galloway said the policy was "the very definition of discrimination", but would not explicitly say whether the Government would change the policy.

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Q+A asks if New Zealand’s refugee policy is racist and talks about workplace bullying. Source: Q+A

When asked why the policy was not changed earlier, Mr Lees-Galloway said that "the three year programme is in there for a good reason... Immigration New Zealand need time to plan and operationalise the refugee intake". 

Mr Lees-Galloway would not say if he thought the law was racist, but said he had expressed his view to Cabinet, "that's where I should be having that conversation". 

In a statement, the UNHCR – the UN's refugee agency – told TVNZ refugee laws should be applied "without discrimination to race, religion or country of origin".

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Jacinda Ardern recalled previous visits to refugee camps around the world during a visit to a Wellington exhibition. Source: 1 NEWS