NZ to take 750 Syrian refugees

Millions of Syrians have fled their homeland since the civil war began four years ago. Photo: Reuters
Millions of Syrians have fled their homeland since the civil war began four years ago. Photo: Reuters

New Zealand is to take 750 Syrian refugees over the next three years - a measure expected to cost an extra $50 million.

Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse confirmed this afternoon that New Zealand will take a total of 750 Syrian refugees - 600 in an emergency intake over and above the usual annual quota of 750. A further 150 places will be offered with the quota over the next year.

Under the plan, a total of 250 will be offered by mid next year. After that a further 500 will come in by mid 2018, totalling 750.

Michael Woodhouse
Michael Woodhouse

The move follows domestic and international calls for governments worldwide to do more to help the 13.5 million victims of the biggest humanitarian crisis since World War II - pressure which effectively forced New Zealand Prime Minister John Key's hand a week after he ruled out further measures until after a review of refugee quotas next year.

It comes after more than 7000 asylum seekers surged across Hungary's western border into Austria and Germany over the weekend. They were met with cheers, hugs, hospitality and the hope of a new life.

• Churches say they'll take more 

Once the details had been worked through with the UN's refugee agency, the first could arrive in New Zealand within months

However, there would be no immediate steps to increase the overall refugee quota permanently - such a decision would come after next year's review.

The first 100 refugees will arrive in three groups in January, March and May 2016. The UN refugee agency would screen them as was done under the quota.

Mr Woodhouse said the cost of the extra refugees would come to about $48.8 million over the three years. The Government at present spends $58 million annually on refugee re-settlement.

Mr Woodhouse said the extra 600 places above quota would be allocated even if the quota changed following a review in the middle of next year.

The Government is likely to be criticised for failing to bring in the refugees more quickly - Labour favours bringing in 750 in one year.

But Mr Woodhouse said it was an appropriate response: "Official advice is an immediate intake of any more than the extra 100 announced today for this year could put unreasonable strain on services, affecting the quality of resettlement outcomes for all refugees in New Zealand."

He said there were practical considerations in the ability to provide housing, translators and health services which had to be taken into account.

Mr Woodhouse said it was a similar step to former National Prime Minister Jenny Shipley's actions in 2000 in which 600 ethnic Albanian refugees fleeing ethnic cleaning in Kosovo were accepted into New Zealand above the quota.

Those refugees also arrived in three groups of 150 each to ensure refugee services were not put under undue strain.

$4.5m more funding 

The Government has also announced a further $4.5 million in aid funding to help refugees displaced by the conflict in Syria.

The funding would go to refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan and delivered through partnerships with those countries, UN agencies and non-governmental organisations which were helping with the camps.

Foreign Minister Murray McCully said the total aid New Zealand had given for refugees affected by fighting in Iraq and Syria was $20 million.

New Zealand's aid funding had gone toward schools in the camps, and health and education support as well as to support the International Committee of the Red Cross in Syria.

"One of the most effective ways we can help address this humanitarian crisis is by ensuring there are facilities to cater for refugees in countries neighbouring Syria and that these refugee communities are afforded adequate protection."

Mr McCully said while humanitarian assistance was essential, the top priority should be on finding a solution to the conflict in Syria.

"Many Syrian refugees wish to return home once it is safe, so finding a political solution to the civil war in Syria needs to be the international community's top priority.

New Zealand is using its position on the UN Security Council to call for action and we continue to urge all members to work together to find a way of ending the violence."

Key defends decision

Prime Minister John Key has defended the decision not to bring in all 750 Syrian refugees in one year, saying it was important to bring the refugees in at a pace New Zealand could handle to ensure resettlement was successful.

The Government had sought advice on issues including housing and health. He said the bulk of the refugees would go into Housing NZ homes in Wellington, partly because there were more homes available than in Auckland.

Most of the 83 Syrians accepted under the quota last year were in Wellington so there was already a community there.

He said the Government's decision situation in Syria was heartbreaking and had "visibly worsened" in recent days and New Zealanders' concerns reflected that.

Increasing the refugee intake was part of doing the job as a responsible global citizen.

Mr Key noted that the church community had held out their hands up to help and said there was a way the community could help, either by volunteering with the refugee resettlement services or by donations. He said people should contact the Red Cross if they wished to help. The most important thing was to make the Syrians feels welcome and safe.

Mr Key said many of the refugees wanted to return to Syria when the conflict ended.

He said he was reluctant to permanently increase the quota until after a thorough review next year. Increasing it to 1000 could leave the Government without the flexibility to provide for emergency intakes above that quota.

"It doesn't mean you can never do more or increase that capacity, but at the moment this is stretching the system."

Any further would require an expansion of the Mangere resettlement centre, at which all new refugees spend their first six weeks.

"Welcome but overdue" first step

The boom in the number of Syrian refugees that will be accepted into New Zealand has been labelled a "welcome but overdue" first step.

Amnesty International said the life-saving initiative had been too long in the pipeline.

Executive director Grant Bayldon said New Zealand was "well out of step" with other countries, sitting at 90th in the world on per capita intake of refugees.

"[It is] a welcome and overdue first step.

"The worst global refugee crisis in 70 years requires an urgent and significant response...Doubling our refugee quota is the least we can do after 28 years without an increase," Mr Bayldon said.

The NGO Disaster Relief Forum said the increase was welcome, but agreed the permanent refugee quote should be doubled.

Chairman Ian McInnes said increasing refugee numbers were now at unprecedented levels.

"It is a shame that it has taken the well-publicised photo and story of a death of a child on a beach to wake us up to the desperation of refugees," Mr McInnes said.

"While the emergency package is good news for some of the many fleeing the Syria conflict, raising the permanent quota can help refugees in other hot spots around the globe."

Green Party co-leader James Shaw said New Zealand's refugee quota was "embarrassingly low".

The party would be seeking to introduce a member bill immediately which would increase New Zealand's refugee quota to 1000, he said.

United Future leader Peter Dunne also agreed there was a need to adjust the annual quota - suggesting an urgent task force be created to ensure refugees who arrive on New Zealand shores would be able to settle quickly.

"It would also demonstrate that our various communities are willing to play a practical part that goes beyond mere talk in helping resolve today's major international problems - in a short, a win-win solution," he said.

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