More than 2500 people were unable to enter New Zealand under the refugee quota over the last three years due to Covid.
The Government says it's not intending to make up for that shortfall, despite the number of people forcibly displaced rising past record levels around the world.
It comes as New Zealand kicks off its first year where it intends to fulfil its promised refugee quota of 1500 people per financial year.
Immigration Minister Michael Wood revealed on World Refugee Day Cabinet had signed off on its next three-year plan for the refugee programme.
He told 1News the incoming changes include doubling the number of people who can access the refugee family visa, and changes to the regional allocation of where people come to New Zealand from.
2500 person shortfall
The most recent yearly intake saw just over half the quota fulfilled - 754. Of that, 420 people were from the Asia-Pacific region, 135 from the Middle East, 126 from the Americas and 71 from Africa.
The previous year (2020/21) it was only 260 people and 797 the year Covid first hit. Overall that’s a shortfall of 2689 people over the last three years.
"New Zealand’s Refugee Quota intake was further impacted by the outbreak of the Delta variant of Covid-19, as we could not ensure we would be able to safely move refugees from different regions around the world to New Zealand," Fiona Whiteridge of Immigration NZ said.
Immigration Minister Michael Wood said the "ideal" situation would be to meet the quota numbers every year, "but that simply hasn't been possible".
"We would have liked it to have been higher, but for those people who have been able to get to New Zealand, that will be life changing and we do now look forward to being able to meet our new quota numbers of 1500 in the 22/23 year."
When asked why the Government was not considering making up for the shortfall, Wood said that it would be difficult in practice.
"One of the things that New Zealand really prides itself in on is that we don't just welcome refugees to New Zealand and then say good luck off you go. We have a very high level of support that we provide. It would be very challenging to provide that support to a much higher number than the 1500 quota."
Mustafa Derbashi, the general manager of the Asylum Seekers Support Trust and a member of the advisory group to the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the terrorist attack on Christchurch mosques, said New Zealand can and should do better.
These numbers are not enough. They are really disappointing.— Mustafa Derbashi
He acknowledged there was currently limited resources when it came to resettlement, “but New Zealand should meet its commitments to people who really need help” and bring in the people it promised it would.
“We are the country of aroha. We are the country of values. We have our commitments, so... we need really to rethink that and do better than what we are doing at the moment.”
He said for people forced to make the decision to flee their country in search of a safe place, there are already layers of complexity in the journey, with Covid adding to that.
“Some people pay the cost of their lives for that journey.
"This is an overdue call for us just to stop and reflect and try to change the policies."
He said New Zealand needed to look at its policy positions in terms of the numbers, the way it brings in refugees from different countries and the way asylum seekers are treated.
“When people come here and they should be able to eat, to have shelter and to live with dignity until the outcome of their applications is revealed. They are human beings. There are people who came here from war zones, who have lost their loved ones.”
Wood confirmed that Cabinet signed off on a change to New Zealand's regional allocation within the quota.
Previously, New Zealand's refugee quota was made up of 50% from Asia-Pacific, 20% from Americas, 15% from Africa and 15% from the Middle East.
Now, the allocation from the Americas has dropped to 10%, while Africa and the Middle East have risen to 20% each. Asia-Pacific has remained the same.
Refugee family visa
Wood said the other significant change in Cabinet's three-year plan was the doubling of the family reunification numbers, from 300 up to 600 “because we recognise that being able to have close family with you is a really important part of good resettlement”.
That means that people that come to New Zealand as refugees may be able to sponsor family members to come too under that visa category. The fees, such as registration, application and the immigration levies were also removed. Immigration NZ also coordinates for them to get here.
To be able to qualify, the person in New Zealand has to have no immediate family in New Zealand (unless a sole carer of a dependent relative) and have no family members eligible for residency under any other category.
Human rights advocate Guled Mire said the Government needs to ensure it has everything in place to meet the upcoming refugee quota, but was heartened by the changes announced to the regional allocation and family resettlement visa.
“I'd really like us to see us meet the targets we've set, that's all we're asking for. We just want them to meet the obligations that they have set for themselves, because the reality is we haven't been able to meet those obligations for many years now.”
He said the changes to the regional allocation were long overdue.
“These are changes that have been advocated for, not just by communities but the UNHCR themselves. They are responding to where the greatest urgent needs are, and that is within Africa and the Middle East.
“The numbers that we have right now strike a good balance between ensuring we're fulfilling our obligations to the Asia-Pacific region, but also where the greatest needs are.”
Mire said the changes to the family reunification visa will make a significant difference and was a “natural step, in terms of the progression of our quota programme”.
“The reality is that many refugees settle into New Zealand with virtually nothing. For the Government to be able to support them with their financial assistance, it's really important. It also lifts a burden from communities.
"Studies show again and again that refugees integrate when they're with their family, when they're united, and when people flee conflict they often get separated from their family members.
“It ensures that it gives refugees the best place possible to be able to integrate into New Zealand.”
He stressed the importance of providing quality resettlement services for refugees, ensuring they have a “positive set up to be able to integrate into New Zealand society”.
Advocate Madiha Ali, a member of the New Zealand Refugee Advisory Panel, said the speed at which displaced people around the world was rising, was “very, very alarming”.
Those numbers are people with stories. People like you and me, people who have dreams and people who have hopes and people who want to live a life.— Madiha Ali
On the refugee shortfall in New Zealand, Ali said that will be “2500 people who have a lot that that they want to get a lot out of life”.
“But... they're stuck in limbo, stuck in a place where it's very difficult, where there's hopelessness and where you're treated like second class humans.
“They want help and they just want a chance at normal life.
“That's a big number that we're talking about and that's a big number of people that we can change their lives if we bring that to New Zealand.
“We should seek solutions.”
She said it was imperative for Government to keep “aroha and love and compassion at the centre of decision making, at the centre for our day-to-day lives”.
“New Zealand can do so much better, and we should do so much better, because we can.”
“I would definitely love to see New Zealand Government taking in those refugees that they missed out on due to Covid.”
Ali also wanted to see more acceptance within New Zealand society around refugees, “not in terms of sympathy or pity, but rather in understanding and empathy that you have for another human being”.
The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) released figures last month indicating one in 78 people around the world are currently displaced, with a rise in people forced to flee jumping to 100 million in May.
The jump "highlighting worldwide food insecurity, the climate crisis, war in Ukraine and other emergencies from Africa to Afghanistan as leading causes", chief Filippo Grandi said.
The UNHCR told 1News in March that the pandemic had a "devastating impact globally, with 2020 having seen the lowest resettlement totals in four decades", and there was only modest improvements in 2021.
"This has added to the uncertainty and suffering for more than 1.4 million refugees. Today resettlement programmes globally remain in a state of urgently needed recovery. Africa and Europe remain the regions with the highest projected resettlement needs. Syrian refugees show the highest resettlement need of any refugee population."
When asked if the UNHCR expects any issues with New Zealand resuming and meeting its quota, a spokesperson said there was "no shortage of need for resettlement places".
"Dealing with the backlog of cases and restoring resettlement intakes to their historic norms or growing them further is urgent work that UNHCR and all resettlement countries must contend with, New Zealand included."
Red Cross' Tim O’Donovan said it was pleasing for New Zealand to commit to bringing in 1500 refugees.
"We're currently going out to the community now in in recruiting and selecting and training volunteers.
"Typically, each family that comes in has two to three volunteers and the reason for that is simply because people offer different skills, different connections... but also people are available at different times.
"We're always looking for more volunteers to be part of that process."
O'Donovan said of the people who have not been able to come to New Zealand, "many of them are sitting in an unsafe situation, and some of those people were in certain situations where actually their lives are at risk".
"We're really supportive of getting as many people we can here and supporting them once we get here."
Green MP Golriz Ghahraman said her party had called for a humanitarian-based approach to reopening the border, for the Government to fulfil the quota and to commit to backfilling the shortfall of people who weren't able to come to New Zealand due to Covid.
She said there was a "massive need" around the world.
"Each of those people have had to prove that they are escaping war, or persecution, very serious harm... That’s who we’re leaving behind."
She said it was disappointing New Zealand sits "incredibly low" internationally in how many people it takes per capita, according to the UNHCR.
"New Zealand is really not pulling our weight internationally to respond to these crises."
National's Gerry Brownlee said his party's policy was to keep the quota as is, "but we would also give special allocations on a case-by-case basis, as we have done in the past".
Within New Zealand's quota, there was 150 places for women at risk, 75 for people with medical conditions and disabilities, 200 for large-scale refugee crisis situations, and the 150-place offer for people in Australia's offshore detention.
The number of refugees who came from Africa and the Middle East was severely impacted for years in New Zealand due to a policy labelled "racist and discretionary" by Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon. That was scrapped in late 2019.
When asked why the 2021-22 intake saw only 71 people brought in from Africa, Wood said New Zealand doesn't "go and pick and choose at the refugees who come into New Zealand... They are referred on to us by the UN High Commission for Refugees".
"There is the other screening process that New Zealand undertakes, but primarily we are guided by their proposals for refugees."
He said that Africa was a region with particular conflicts "where we might expect to see an elevated need, and we would be wanting to support that".