Former refugees say current policy 'racist', must change

11:53 am on 20 June 2019

Last year, more than 70 million people were forced to flee their homes because of war, persecution and conflict - the highest number since the UN's refugee agency began.

Guled Mire.

Guled Mire came to New Zealand in the early 1990s. Photo: Guy Ryan

This year, 1000 refugees will be able to resettle here in New Zealand - but there are restrictions on where those people can come from.

It's because of a policy brought in by the National-led government in 2009, which means refugees from Africa and the Middle East are only allowed to resettle here if they have family members already living in the country.

On World Refugee Day today, former refugees in Aotearoa share their experiences, the highs and lows.

Former refugee and community advocate Guled Mire told First Up his family fled the Somalian civil war in the early 1990s.

"I was about 6-years-old at that time. It was my mum and eight siblings. People often forget that refugees are often forced to flee their homeland ... it's not a choice that they make."

He said there were many refugees in New Zealand that contributed to all walks of life and society despite the stereotypes.

"The misconceptions that exist are that refugees are going to come here and be a drain on the system. But, there's multiple studies that show that refugees economically and socially enrich New Zealand society and host communities around the world.

"Misconceptions like refugees are dangerous, a threat to society - those type of stereotypes are quite harmful."

New Zealanders who were keen to understand the refugee resettlement process could volunteer their time, donate to charities, be more kind, and friendly, "just say hello," he said.

Mr Mire said the current refugee resettlement policy was discriminatory.

"There are concerns within the community that it's quite racist. To disadvantage one group over another - if that isn't racism I don't know what is. It sends out a negative message."

Similarly, Abbas Nazari who as a seven-year-old was one of the refugees at the centre of the Tampa crisis, told Morning Report it was "definitely" time to change the current policy.

"I don't understand what the background was, to why that particular point was put across, just Africans and Middle Easterners. I think that this government will hopefully review that."

A Syrian refugee family at the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre.

A refugee family at the Māngere Refugee Resettlement Centre in south Auckland. Photo: 123RF

Mr Nazari was one of more than 400 refugees rescued from their sinking boat by the Norwegian freighter, the Tampa, of the Australian coast back in 2001.

The Australian government refused to take them in, but New Zealand did.

Now at 23, he's just won the prestigious Fulbright scholarship to study a Masters of International Affairs at Columbia University in New York.

"Me being given the opportunity to study higher education is actually lifting up the entire refugee or Afghan community. Hopefully, the younger kids coming through can be like 'actually, he can do it, so I can too'."

He said his experiences here had been fantastic.

"I've been given every opportunity, I've had every support along the way. To be given that opportunity is a blessing and a responsibility - I do have to try and do my best."

It could be a burden sometimes, however, but "I do thrive in it," he said.

Mr Nazari said he wanted to shine a light on the spectrum of people that come to New Zealand as refugees, migrants, and those from ethnic backgrounds.

"It's all well and good to pick and choose your refugees and say 'look at him, he was given a chance and now he's got a Fulbright scholarship, or representing New Zealand on the international level at sport, culture, academia, whatever'."

But, he said, there were people on the other end of the spectrum who had mental health issues and financial hardships from being in a warzone.

"The refugee community is so diverse. We have to celebrate the spectrum of people from all sorts of backgrounds."

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