Academic journal article New Zealand Sociology

Changing Attitudes: What If Refugee Lawyers and Maori Wrote New Zealand's Asylum Seeker and Refugee Policy?

Academic journal article New Zealand Sociology

Changing Attitudes: What If Refugee Lawyers and Maori Wrote New Zealand's Asylum Seeker and Refugee Policy?

Article excerpt


Refugee policy and practice operate both in a broad context of values, attitudes and beliefs and through the specifics of practical application to individuals. This paper argues that at the contextual level, current negative attitudes could be mitigated by adoption of the Maori values of manaakitanga to create a more hospitable reception for asylum seekers. On the level of individual encounters with New Zealand law and policy in action, I propose that refugee lawyers' intimate knowledge of asylum seeker needs and experiences could be deployed to enhance protection for the human rights of those who seek refugee status in Aotearoa.


The term 'refugee' is a generic description that includes both United Nations quota refugees who have acceptance granted before arrival and asylum seekers who become spontaneous refugees upon arrival. This paper is about the legal and political management of asylum seekers as they go through the process of acceptance or rejection as residents, and ultimately citizens of Aotearoa New Zealand. Drawing on interviews with twenty Maori participants and on lawfocused reports, submissions, and case analyses by refugee lawyers and human rights experts I shall argue here that two kinds of knowledge, operating at quite different levels, could be used to create more progressive policy in this field. First, an adoption of the social values that inform the Maori practice of manaakitanga would create a positive attitude change in politicians and public opinion. More immediately, more attention could be given to the detailed and intimate knowledge of refugee lawyers in the field of current law and practice to better protect the human rights of asylum seekers and spontaneous refugees.

It is widely recognised that attitudes and practices are mutually constitutive. In the case of asylum seekers the attitudes of policy makers, selectively relayed through mass media, reflexively influence and are informed by public opinion. The crucial significance of attitude in policy formation and practice in this field is evident in the very recent dates of the relevant legislation (Immigration Act 2009 and Immigration Amendment Act 2013) that represents government response to international events and concerns of the new millennium. As in larger and more influential Western nations, local policy and practice have arguably been strongly driven by fear and shaped through ethnic stereotyping that reflects perceptions of threat from dangerous strangers, despite the absence of local empirical evidence to that effect. Introducing the 2013 legislation, immigration minister Michael Woodhouse described New Zealand as "a growing target for boats from Asia, as demonstrated recently by the Geraldton boat carrying 66 asylum seekers, which was on its way to New Zealand when bad weather struck" (cited in ONE News, 2013, n.p). The arrival of a vessel of asylum seekers, he said, could quickly overwhelm New Zealand's immigration and court systems and could also have significant security implications in the difficulty of establishing the identities of the arrivals.

International research has demonstrated how media choice of news stories for publication is significant in the formation of public and political attitudes toward asylum seekers and refugees (O'Doherty and Lecouteur, 2007). My admittedly limited analysis of New Zealand news media reporting on refugees since 2000 reveals two principal narratives ? good news about generous communities receiving new arrivals, which are quite rare, and reports of people-smuggling, criminal convictions and cancellations of refugee status prior to deportation. Failure of informed media concern for the well-being of asylum seekers, shown for example in lack of regard for confidentiality, has at times quite possibly endangered those concerned. For example, a report by the New Zealand Herald named two army interpreters (and their villages) in Afghanistan who had not been given refugee status here along with their colleagues. …

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