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More refugees to be election issue

Published: 8:19AM Tuesday January 29, 2002

Opposition parties have rejected Prime Minister Helen Clark's plans to admit more refugees and are vowing to make it an issue in the 2002 general election.

Amid continuing controversy over neighbouring Australia's treatment of asylum seekers, Clark has floated the idea of lifting the annual quota of 750 refugees that New Zealand accepts under the United Nations-approved programme, if her Labour Party retains power.

The suggestion has led to a claim that too many are already being accepted from unfamiliar cultures.

Clark says in the longer term, she would like to increase the annual quota of 750 refugees if enough funding is available for proper resettlement programmes.

Opposition parties attacked the prospect of a higher refugee quota on Tuesday, citing the costs to New Zealand's health, education and social service systems.

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters, who with his party has consistently opposed immigration programmes, said that he would campaign again on the issue.

And Act Party leader Richard Prebble is calling for a "serious rethink" of the Labour-Alliance government's refugee policy, especially in terms of accepting people from Somalia, whom he says have difficulty settling down.

"These are desert people, and we are taking them into one of the wettest countries on earth," he said.

Prebble wants the whole refugee policy reconsidered.

He says white farmers being driven off their land in Zimbabwe would be better suited to settling down in New Zealand.

Prebble says that New Zealand's government was too hasty in accepting 130 people, mainly Afghans, from the Norwegian freighter Tampa, after the refugees were denied entry last year to Australia.

If their applications to stay in New Zealand had been delayed, they could have been sent home now that the Taliban regime had been defeated in Afghanistan, he says.

National Party immigration spokeswoman Marie Hasler does not reject an increase in refugee numbers outright but is calling for a wide public debate in view of the social, cultural and financial implications.

Clark's party is well ahead of its rivals in opinion polls to win the election due in November.

"I take it as a given that parties of the right, in a hole, will resort to campaigning on race, crime and immigration," Clark told the New Zealand Herald.

She said that she would like to accept more refugees but would not do so until the government had the financial resources to ensure people could be settled properly.

Australia the catalyst for the issue

Asylum seekers are staging hunger strikes at four of Australia's six detention centres, and one group of up to 11 teenagers at the most remote centre in Woomera are threatening mass suicide.

They are protesting at their living conditions and the time it is taking to process refugee claims.

Clark won't comment on the current volatile Australian situation that has thrown up the question of regional refugee resettlement, not wanting to meddle in another country's internal politics.

"It is something we shouldn't rule out... the United Nations is under very serious pressure trying to place many many millions of displaced people and it falls on a relatively small number of countries like New Zealand to help out," she told ONE News.

But Green MP Keith Locke believes we should go a step further and offer to take some of the Woomera detainees off Australia's hands.

Clark says the upper limit for refugees would be a doubling of New Zealand's current quota - and that would be a long way down the track.

She says a more achievable target would be to phase in an increase of up to 250 per year of extra refugees on the current quota.

PC claim from Act

But Prebble says the government's policy is "politically correct" and it must be upfront about the costs of accepting refugees from such countries here, including the extra demands on health, education, and social services.

Hasler says the government should not decide on its own to increase the quota.

She says social, cultural and financial implications should be subject to thorough public debate.

The National immigration spokeswoman says Australia should also be kept well briefed, especially given its reaction to other immigration moves by this government, such as an earlier amnesty for overstayers.

As well as the annual quota of 750, which filled by referrals from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, New Zealand accepts additional people under its family reunification policy.

In recent years several hundred asylum seekers who have arrived at the border have also been granted refugee status.

Refugee Council welcomes Clark's comments

Auckland Refugee Council secretary William Smith says New Zealand's contribution is already considerable, but he is pleased the government is open to accepting more refugees in the future.

He says New Zealand stands to gain if it accepts more refugees in the future. He says it gives New Zealand a good image in the eyes of the rest of the world, and this country benefits morally and financially.

Smith says while improvements could be made to current resettlement programmes, it would not take a lot of money.

Smith rejects Prebble's comments about New Zealand re-focusing its policy away from unfamiliar cultures.

However, Smith does agree that the government needs to do more to resource resettlement programmes and deal with the physical, mental health, and social needs of the refugees it accepts - an issue the Prime Minister has herself acknowledged.

New Zealand actually takes many more refugees than its annual quota, with an additional 700 or so spontaneously arriving at the border annually to claim asylum and several hundred more admitted as family members of refugees already granted residence.

Business welcomes new citizens

Auckland Chamber of Commerce CEO Michael Barnett says Prebble's concerns may be accurate when looking at the large numbers of migrants already in New Zealand.

This includes non-refugees as well as those fleeing persecution, war, famine and the like.

According to the ACC's New Kiwis website, most new migrants have difficulty getting jobs or finding work suitable to their offshore qualifications.

However Barnett says from a humanitarian perspective it is a good thing to be in a position internationally to be able to demonstrate some compassion on the refugee issue.

This may well generate goodwill towards New Zealand that would be beneficial for the image of the country.

And the business community is applauding new figures which show immigration is helping reverse a decline in New Zealand's population.

The figures, from the Department of Statistics, show by the end of December last year the population rose by 1% to almost 3,900,000.

The rate of growth is double that of the previous year, due mainly to more people moving permanently to this country than leaving.

Barnett says the increase in immigrants is helping drive economic growth, particularly in Auckland, where most of them settle.

And the increase in immigration is one factor behind the current boom in the construction sector, says Master Builders Federation chief executive Chris Preston.

© AAP

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