Who are refugees?
Unlike those migrants who make the choice to emigrate, refugees have to leave their homeland because they fear for their lives. They are the casualties of crises such as brutal regimes, civil war, anarchy and famine. Often, they are at risk because of their ethnicity, political beliefs or religion. They may have endured persecution, torture, rape or abduction, or have witnessed killings. Many arrive after perilous journeys and traumatic detention in refugee camps, having lost loved ones, homes, possessions and jobs.
‘The fear is in our bones’
After a year in Auckland, Teuta Fusha, a Kosovar Albanian who fled Serbian persecution, said, ‘To be safe and not to have to think about what might happen tomorrow or what might happen tonight is wonderful.’ Another family member commented, ‘The fear is in our bones. … We are still traumatised. For example today, when … a truck hit its horn, I was jumping. There is fear also when you hear anything that makes a strange noise or when the phone goes.’ 1
The United Nations 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees defines a refugee as a person who ‘owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country’.
New Zealand’s intakes
Since 1840 New Zealand has given refuge to people from Europe, South America, Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Some were made more welcome than others – refugee intakes have been larger when there were clear economic benefits for New Zealand. When only humanitarian considerations were involved, intakes were smaller.
More than 20,000 refugees have arrived since 1944, when refugees were first distinguished from other immigrants in official statistics. While the total number is low compared to the many millions of refugees and displaced people in the world, it is high in terms of the country’s population of 4 million.
New Zealand admits refugees under various international agreements. Key agreements are the 1951 United Nations Convention and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. By signing these agreements, New Zealand committed itself to working with the international community to help resolve refugee problems.