The refugee quota programme
In 1987 the government agreed to accept (subject to community sponsorship) an annual quota of 800 people who were classified as refugees by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). This formalised New Zealand’s previously ad hoc response to refugee situations.
Over the years the quota programme has included a number of categories, such as specific ethnic or national groups, and people with special needs (such as ‘handicapped’ refugees). Other categories in the quota have been ‘protection’, ‘women at risk’, ‘medical’, ‘emergency’ and ‘humanitarian’. There are provisions to admit close family members of refugees already living in New Zealand. In 1997, the government reduced the quota to 750 but agreed to pay travel costs.
By 2003, the quota was being applied to refugees considered in greatest need of resettlement. In addition to UNHCR recognition, selected refugees now have to meet criteria that include being able to be assimilated well in New Zealand.
In 2020, New Zealand accepted a total of 1,500 refugees per year – COVID-19 restrictions aside.
Safe in their beds
Svea Hurd arrived with her three young children from strife-torn Zimbabwe under the refugee quota programme. On her first night she was hugely relieved to put her children to bed without fearing they might be gone in the morning. ‘People are sleeping with shotguns under their beds. I was too scared to leave the children on the farm so I took them to work with me. Farmers in our town are being beaten, hit and abused. … It was a hard decision to leave, but the children come first and they have to be safe.’ 1
In addition to New Zealand’s intake under the quota, small numbers of asylum seekers entered from the early 1980s. Asylum seekers endeavour to establish their UNHCR refugee status after arriving. Their claims are assessed under the 1951 United Nations Convention and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. The Refugee Status Branch of the New Zealand Immigration Service grants or declines applications for refugee status. The Refugee Status Appeal Authority hears and determines appeals against decisions of the Refugee Status Branch.
In response to the increasing numbers of asylum seekers since the late 1980s, the government introduced regulations and new laws designed to:
- hasten the determination of refugee status
- allow for the faster removal of people who are unlawfully in New Zealand
- allow for the detention of asylum seekers while their cases are assessed.
The wider picture
New Zealand’s practices regarding refugees are linked with the country’s changing foreign relations, and its economic, labour market, and immigration policies. They have also evolved in response to the numerous refugee crises since the Second World War.
Under the refugee quota, the admission of selected UNHCR-mandated refugees from increasingly diverse backgrounds has become an ongoing humanitarian priority in New Zealand’s immigration policy.