Story: Refugees

Emigrating to a new country is always hard enough, but for refugees it can be devastating. Some New Zealand immigrants have been refugees, who have often endured terror, trauma, and the loss of homes and loved ones before they even begin their journey. Many arrive with nothing but their clothes, unable to speak the language. Life has to be rebuilt from scratch.

Story by Ann Beaglehole
Main image: Somalis find refuge in New Zealand

Story summary

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Who are refugees?

Refugees are people who have been driven from their homeland by a crisis such as civil war or persecution. Often their lives are endangered because of their ethnicity, or political or religious beliefs.

Of all the immigrants who arrive in New Zealand, perhaps refugees face the toughest challenges. They have often suffered imprisonment or torture. They may have lost members of their families, and endured months in refugee camps. Many cannot speak English, and arrive with no belongings.

New Zealand’s policies

Since 1840 thousands of refugees have been accepted from around the world. New Zealand has signed international agreements, including United Nations agreements in 1951 and 1967. In 1959 New Zealand became one of the first countries to accept ‘handicapped’ refugees (for instance the sick, disabled or elderly).

But New Zealand has not always opened its doors to everyone – strict rules once favoured groups who would easily blend in. Others were not accepted readily, for example Jewish people fleeing Nazism, and Chinese refugees in the 1950s.

In 1987 the government agreed to accept a quota of 800 refugees each year. This was later reduced to 750.

Refugee groups

The first people seeking safety were from Denmark in the 1870s, fleeing suppression of their language and culture by the Germans. Among those who arrived after that were:

  • Polish orphans in 1944
  • Asians expelled from Uganda in 1972–73
  • Vietnamese boat people between 1977 and 1993
  • refugees from Afghanistan, from 2001
  • 1,857 Somalis by 2006 (some came to join their families).

Since the early 1980s, increasing numbers of asylum seekers have arrived. Asylum seekers do not have refugee status when they arrive, and a committee decides whether they can stay as refugees.

How to cite this page:

Ann Beaglehole, 'Refugees', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 29 May 2024)

Story by Ann Beaglehole, published 8 February 2005