This week, United States President Donald Trump signed a hugely controversial executive order, halting the country's refugee programme, banning residents of Iran, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Libya and Yemen from entering the country for 90 days, and halting immigration from those fleeing war-torn Syria indefinitely. The order, which targets Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East and Africa, has been dubbed "extreme vetting" by the Trump administration, and an unconstitutional "Muslim ban" elsewhere.
But since 2009, New Zealand has steadily decreased the number of refugees taken from the Middle East and African regions, citing "broad security concerns". Current Prime Minister Bill English described Middle Eastern asylum seekers in 2005 as "leftovers". "We need migrants, but we don't need leftovers from Middle East terrorist regimes," he writes. "If you turn up to the border with an apple, you get done. If you turn up with an Iraqi passport and references from Saddam Hussein, you get in." English concluded that his party would "put the red light" on such arrivals. 10 years later, they have. While New Zealand once took a third of its refugees from each region, over last five years it has taken just 5 per cent from Africa, and more than halved intake from the Middle East* to 16 per cent. According to Immigration New Zealand, the only people accepted from Africa and the Middle East under NZ's quota are those being reunified with family already here - so that number could soon dwindle to nothing.
We spoke to human rights advocate and head of Doing Our Bit NZ Murdoch Stephens about New Zealand's policy, why we take so few refugees from the Middle East and Africa, and how close it is to Trump's.
So how did we get to the point of taking so few refugees from Africa and the Middle East? How does New Zealand currently select its refugee intake?
So New Zealand divides the world up into four different regions where we can take refugees from. Those regions are Asia Pacific, Africa, the Middle East and the Americas. Before 2009, before the current government, we took roughly a third of our refugees from the Asia Pacific, a third from Africa, and a third from the Middle East. In 2008 we started taking some refugees from the Americas as well. But when the National government came in in 2009, as part of the broader pivot to the Asia Pacific region, Minister Murray McCully put forward an option to cabinet of moving all of our refugee intake to the Asia Pacific region. They responded with concerns that that would breach the human rights of refugees with families still overseas that wanted them to come over as part of the quota, so a second option was created where we would take 50 percent of our refugee quota from Asia Pacific, and then we would take smaller percentages—something like 18 percent from the Americas, 17 from the middle east, 15 from Africa.
Why the shift?
At that time they gave three reasons—and I'll give them in order of credibility in my opinion. The first reason was to try and stem the flow of people coming from South East Asia to Australia by boat. Because we wanted to help reduce the number of refugees in camps in South-East Asia. The second reason was that it cost less to fly people from the Asia Pacific to New Zealand. So since we're flying about 180 families a year to NZ as part of our refugee quota, they thought they could cut some costs. So that is kind of legitimate, but a little bit on the nose. And then the third one which for me is the crux of it, is something that they call "broad security concerns". So there was a lot of discussion in those 2009 documents about some security concerns McCully and MFAT had about refugees coming from Africa and the Middle East in particular.
Have those broader concerns ever been articulated?
They have been articulated to in those documents, but they weren't released to us under the Official Information Act.
Since 2009 we've only taken refugees from Africa and the Middle East if they already have family links to New Zealand. So there's been basically a ban on new refugees from that region, apart from the Syrians that came in in a separate emergency quota.
So how has that been reflected in our actual refugee intake?
It's affected African refugees the most. In the last five years the average number of people from African countries has dropped to 5 percent of our quota. In the five years before that, it was 17.5 percent of our quota, and before that about 33 percent.
From the Middle East it's been a little different—there's been a lot of family reunification of Christian Iraqis, so those numbers have been closer to around 16 percent over the last five years.
Sixteen percent is still a lot smaller than a third.
Yeah, they've both substantially decreased, particularly at a time when the United Nations has said we should be focusing our quota—our very small quota—on the people who are most vulnerable, and they've said the most vulnerable people are those in Africa and the Middle East. So New Zealand isn't using our quota as the United Nations would like us to.
So do you think, in practice, what we're doing has similarities with Trump's most recent executive order?
I think what we're doing is similar, in a very stealthy way. Trump is parading this around like it's a big victory for him and talking about Muslim bans, but that's not really the New Zealand way. When they introduced this policy there was very little fanfare about it. But this is a huge decrease, down to less than five percent, and it's not being discussed by the Government, it's being discussed very little by the media. But if we're talking about the number of people in the most vulnerable situations, which the refugee quota is supposed to help, then the outcomes of this, even if it's not paraded in the media, the outcomes are similar to Trump's policies. Sooner or later there will be no more family reunification to be done, and then there will be none [from those regions] whatsoever.
I found it quite startling, even shocking that Prime Minister Bill English would say we wouldn't do a similar policy. He's obviously not aware of this, because otherwise he wouldn't be able to say that. It's subtle, unlike Trump. But this government has been implementing a policy that has effectively the same results for the last 7, almost 8 years - they just don't brag about it.
So presumably that is the effect over time—as more families reunify, if we're not taking that initial cohort then eventually every family that could be reunified is, and we completely stop taking refugees from those areas. Is that how it works?
That's my understanding, yeah. We're only taking people within the quota who are direct relatives - and we can see this already happening, in the numbers of people coming in. So when PM Bill English says this [Trump's executive order] isn't a policy that he would back, he really needs to talk about what this family link requirement is doing to the number of people we take from different areas.
And the regions affected by this policy, are they broadly the same as the seven countries selected by Trump—apart from that emergency intake of Syrians, is it the same places?
Broadly, yes. Somalia, Yemen, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan—these are all the same countries in those regions. Having said that, the regions we take them from, that's where refugees have got to. So if a refugee from Afghanistan has managed to get to Pakistan, Pakistan is now considered part of the Asia Pacific. So we take those people from Afghanistan, and they're labelled as coming from the Asia Pacific. The same if someone from Somalia found their way to Kuala Lumpur. So it's not an explicit ban in the same way as Trump's law.
Do you think New Zealand should be rethinking the way we take refugees, given the current circumstances?
No-one's saying we can take all the refugees in the world. The ones we take are meant to be the 10 percent of the most vulnerable. So if we're trying to have a refugee quota that doesn't provide protection to everyone, we should at least make it about saving lives. And if we're about saving lives, we should take the most vulnerable people. It's not up to me to say who is most vulnerable, but in these circumstances I look to the United Nations, who have explicitly said that Africa and Middle East are those places. These are the places where it's life or death. And that's what the refugee quota should be aimed at.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
_* Refugees of Afghan origin are taken through Pakistan, and therefore counted under the Asia Pacific region. This figure also excludes an additional cohort of Syrian refugees brought in under a special emergency quota. See here for the full refugee arrival statistics. _