Murdoch Stephens: Don't pit refugees against NZ poor

Boys sift through garbage at a dump near a makeshift settlement for Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Years of living ...

Boys sift through garbage at a dump near a makeshift settlement for Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Years of living precariously in new countries is what makes many refugees poor before they arrive in New Zealand, says Murdoch Stephens.

OPINION: A huge misconception lies at the heart of the debate about growing New Zealand's lagging refugee quota: the definition of a refugee isn't based on being poor. It is based on being persecuted.

So much of the discussion of refugees is based on a misplaced idea that we are saving people from poverty, which leads some to suggest our focus should be on poor people in New Zealand who need help.

Just look at the discussion around the new resettlement of refugees in Invercargill. There is an argument – often subtle, but sometimes brutally direct – that resettlement cities are being burdened with new people who have no skills, ambition or hope of ever contributing.

Murdoch Stephens is a spokesperson for Doing Our Bit - a campaign to raise the refugee quota in New Zealand.

Murdoch Stephens is a spokesperson for Doing Our Bit - a campaign to raise the refugee quota in New Zealand.

However, poverty has very little to do with what makes someone a refugee. Refugees do tend towards being poor but that is because most have spent much of their resources on surviving the years it takes them to reach safety.

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Imagine how well off you would be if, like the vast majority of refugees, you were precariously living in a country under the radar, without the right to work.

Refugees are not fleeing poverty; they are fleeing persecution. Persecution comes in many forms, from the full-scale war that has driven millions from Syria to the persecution of a single political opponent by a corrupt government.

What refugees need is something most New Zealanders take for granted. Consider the definition of refugee that determines whether someone is eligible to be resettled or not: "A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group."

Poverty is not mentioned. People who don't match this definition – no matter how poor – are turned away or deported. These deportations rarely make the news but are a constant flow: over 80,000 unsuccessful asylum seekers left Germany alone last year, which hardly makes for an "open door policy" on refugees.

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The misconception that refugees are all poor is often accompanied by assumptions that the poverty of a refugee camp will continue into their lives in New Zealand. But anyone who has spent  time with resettled refugees will know better. Resettled refugees generally want two things: to make sure the rest of their family is safe, and the independence that comes from having a job and a home. While many refugees start on unemployment benefits, the 2013 Refugee Resettlement Strategy, in combination with the Red Cross' Pathways to Employment programme, has had a great effect in assisting former refugees in becoming independent.

While poverty is often characterised as a repeating cycle that spans generations, New Zealanders have little to fear of refugees becoming dependent on the state. When the children of refugees are placed into the New Zealand education system – and more than 40 per cent of our new refugees are children – the results are impressive. Instead of being stuck in a cycle of dependency, refugee families have strong hopes for their children that more often than not lead them to university or to start businesses.

Think of any group of refugees who have come to New Zealand: Jewish, Polish, Indo-Chinese. Most were left poor after persecution or war – but it was not their poverty that meant they were refugees.

This misconception that refugees are fleeing poverty plays out in social media. An anonymous tweeter harangued the IRD late last year with a picture of a decade old BMW that he claimed was owned by a Syrian refugee. The tweeter, in a message now deleted, took an exasperated tone: "as a hard-working kiwi, we let these jokers into the country only for them to buy fancy cars". The implication is, if he could afford the car, he wasn't a true refugee.

ActionStation's Marianne Elliot once tweeted a clever response to citizens concerned about pictures of Syrian refugees using a cellphone: "I don't understand how possessing a cellphone makes someone a less genuine refugee. They're fleeing war, not visiting from the 18th century".

These misconceptions might not be such a big deal if it were only a few misanthropes complaining. But the Government's accounting plays into these arguments by tallying up the cost of refugees without ever trying to account for the short, medium or long-term economic benefit of refugees. A recent study in Europe said that, because of the relative youth of refugees, they were likely to give back two euros for every one spent on resettlement. Refugees are neither determined by their poverty and nor do they actually cost an economy when they're resettled – they add to it. One of the core reasons Bill English gave last week for the government not increasing the quota to a fair level was cost. That argument is flawed as it focuses only on short-term costs. English made no effort to measure the benefit side of the equation, let alone a more nuanced five or ten year cost-benefit analysis.

New Zealand can do its bit for refugees and it won't cost us the earth. All it will take is a prime minister bold enough to front the call.

Murdoch Stephens is the spokesperson for Doing Our Bit - a campaign to double New Zealand's refugee quota.

 - The Dominion Post


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