How the politics of love could revolutionise New Zealand’s refugee policy | Tamkeen Saeid and Philip McKibbin

Our world is careening into crisis. In May this year, the United Nations’ refugee agency announced that, for the first time, the number of forcibly displaced people worldwide has reached 100 million.

When 1 in 78 people globally have been forced to flee their homes, and as climate change threatens to displace more than 1 billion more of us by 2050, we need to ask ourselves: is our current refugee policy adequate?

As New Zealanders, we like to think we always help other people when they’re in need – but when it comes to refugee policy, the facts don’t back that up.

New Zealand ranks 95th in the world per capita in accepting refugees – a statistic that, itself, is based on an increased quota we have never actually reached, and which the government currently has no plans to retroactively fill.

And yet, there is great need. The conflicts in Afghanistan and Ukraine, droughts and famine in Somalia and Mozambique, and political persecution in places like Venezuela represent a fraction of the humanitarian crises that exist today.

Aotearoa could be doing much more to help.

We think refugee policy should be radically reconceived, in line with the politics of love. This vision of politics affirms the importance of each of us, and it emphasises loving values such as compassion, humility, and respect. It urges us to work together to realise a better world.

Love is sometimes criticised as too “weak” for politics – but with highly complex and potentially divisive issues like immigration, it can focus our attention on what is most important.

So, what would loving refugee policy look like?

First, it would be led by people who have lived experience of displacement and resettlement.

Refugees have first-hand understanding of the challenges of forced migration, as well as the emotional, social, cultural, and educational needs that come with it. Because of this, they are uniquely placed to imagine ways to help those experiencing upheaval.

Looking to refugees for guidance is one of the ways we can infuse refugee policy with understanding and respect. In Aotearoa, we might do this by elevating more refugees to elected office, and by actively engaging migrant communities in political decision-making – through wānanga (conferences), focus groups, and advocate-led policy-drafting events.

Second, loving refugee policy would work to ensure aid is always provided in ways that are timely, comprehensive, and appropriate to the situation at hand. As well as anticipating possible crises, we must be prepared to respond as they emerge.

Aid can take many forms, such as sharing resources, extending manaakitanga (hospitality) to refugees by helping them resettle, and supporting other communities who may be better-placed – geographically, or otherwise – to administer assistance.

In some instances, the best way to assist will involve helping refugees to resettle within their countries of origin. Most people prefer not to have to leave their homes, and by assisting refugees to rebuild rather than relocate, we can support them to retain their relationships with people and places.

Often, however, people need to leave. We should help them to do so.

New Zealand employs a quota to determine the number of refugees we accept. However, quota systems constrain our options, and they can prevent us from offering more assistance than we otherwise might.

We should explore different approaches. For example, alongside their government intake, Canada allows private citizens to sponsor refugees – and this has already helped more than 250,000 people. Such an approach could be adapted to enable communities in Aotearoa to act, even if the government fails to do so.

An example of innovative policy can be seen in New Zealand’s response to the war in Ukraine. We issued 4,000 emergency visas for Ukrainians with whānau here. This will mean that hundreds of families are reunited and safe. Although this particular policy raises questions about who we choose to help and why, it demonstrates that we have the capacity to strengthen our formal refugee policy, and assist more people than we typically do.

Third, loving refugee policy would actively promote global cooperation, to ensure our aid is as responsive and responsible as it can be.

However, such cooperation must not only involve collaboration between governments and intergovernmental bodies. Often, grassroots peace groups and refugee support networks are better placed to work with similar organisations worldwide to respond to crises. Governments should trust them, and provide support when requested.

Importantly, global cooperation must involve addressing the root causes of displacement – such as famine, natural disasters, and armed conflict – and promoting freedom of movement and the gradual opening of borders.

We should also plan for the mass migration that climate change will catalyse. The global community must adequately prepare for this, to ensure that all people who find themselves in strife receive the assistance they need.

In this era of increasing uncertainty and compounding crises, conflict threatens to unravel our relationships and divide us from each other. Strong refugee policy can be understood as loving intervention against the danger those crises pose to global solidarity. As well as helping people in desperate need, it can nurture the values we require to survive and thrive in a drastically changing world – such as care, sharing, and trust.

In her book, Know Your Place, Golriz Ghahraman, the first refugee elected to parliament in New Zealand, writes: “The history of the world can be told through conflict, but it can also be told through the benefits of shared knowledge and goods that are seeded by migration.” We might envisage our future this way, too.

The many advantages migration brings – global connections, cross-cultural understanding, genuine empathy, and stories of strength and resilience – may be the very things that enable us to navigate unprecedented challenges together.

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