Sections of the public and a disappointing number of politicians seem to be under the misapprehension that it is easy for a refugee living in New Zealand to bring family members to join them here. In 12 years as a voluntary refugee advocate, I have found it increasingly difficult for refugees to bring the families to New Zealand.
For many refugees there is little prospect that their family will ever join them here.
Imagine that your widowed sister and her three children have been living in an Ethiopian refugee camp for more than 10 years. They have little food, inadequate shelter and a daily risk of rape and other violence. Now that you have permanent residence in New Zealand, will you be able to bring them here?
New Zealand accepts 750 refugees a year under the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) refugee quota programme. This is part of our international commitment. UNHCR selects and refers these refugees. But for UNHCR reuniting refugees already in New Zealand with their families, who may be in refugee camps, is not a priority under this programme.
So, despite the fact that your sister may be a UNHCR-mandated refugee living in a UNHCR refugee camp, and that you came to New Zealand legally under the UNHCR refugee quota programme, your sister and her children are not eligible to join you under this programme. Once refugees have permanent residence in New Zealand, they are entitled to access immigration policies to try to bring family members here.
A humanitarian category which allowed close family members to join their relatives here, if the relatives could prove that the reunion would alleviate serious physical or emotional needs, ceased to exist in 2001, although some cases are still being processed four years later.
There are general policies that let some immigrants bring family members to join them, but these are tightly defined, and many refugees’ family members are simply not eligible. For example, one of the requirements to bring a sibling or adult child to New Zealand is that they have an offer of employment with a minimum salary range.
It would be virtually impossible for you to obtain employment at the required salary level for your sister, who has lived in a refugee camp for many years and who may not speak any English or have formal qualifications. The requirements of these policies are typically way beyond the reach of refugees.
Refugee family quota
This is an annual lottery allowing some refugees resident in New Zealand for more than three years to sponsor family members for residence here. It allows 300 places a year. More than 2000 refugees applied last year.
Those of us who work daily with refugees continually confront the problems and suffering faced by refugees who are separated from important family members.
We know that their resettlement in this country will not be successful while significant family members remain in refugee camps and similar situations.
We also know that many of these refugees will never see their families again. The tragic irony is that while the avenues for refugee family reunification are being closed and narrowed, the one thing that is expanding is the misleading rhetoric of those claiming that refugees and their relatives are flooding into the country.