Launch of Transplanted: Refugee Portraits of New Zealand

at The New Zealand Portrait Gallery, 11 Customhouse Quay

Friday 27 October, 6 pm

Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Palmer QC


New Zealand is a country of immigrants from many lands.

First came the tangata whenua from Polynesia.

Then came the British colonists.

Now we comprise one of the most diverse societies on earth.

Everyone who came here arrived with expectations of a better life in a different place.

Many achieved that goal.

We are fortunate to be distant from many of the world’s trouble spots.

And sadly there are plenty of those.

People here do not suffer religious or political persecution and wholesale deprivation of their human rights.

What we strive for in these islands is peace, order and good government.

We want human rights for all our people.

We want people to live in decent conditions, with adequate shelter in a place called home, enough to eat and the prospect of bringing up their children with a good education and plenty of opportunity.

New Zealanders are fortunate to live in a successful nation.

Of course, we can always improve.

But as we consider our own situation we must not neglect the plight of those less fortunate than ourselves.

As a nation of immigrants we have over the years made a significant effort to help others, through foreign aid, through progressive approaches to issues at the United Nations and through our accession to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Convention in 1960.

In the 1930s New Zealand took 1,100 Jewish refugees. Many of them went on to make a mammoth contribution to our society.

We had the Polish children who arrived in 1944.

And in the years immediately after the Second World War more than 4,500 people came from Europe.

In 1956 came refugees from the Hungarian revolution.

In 1968 Czechoslovaks from the Prague uprising came.

In 1970 it was Chileans fleeing General Pinochet.

Then it was Jews fleeing the Soviet Union in the 1970s.

In more recent years it has been those fleeing wars in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan, Burundi, Somalia, Ethiopia and Sri Lanka, Sudan and the former Yugoslavia.

And it was from Iran one of our newest Green MPs came as a refugee when a child-Golriz Ghahraman.

Since 2000 it has been those escaping from Burundi, Eritrea, Djibouti, and Bhutan, then Columbia and now Syria.

A detached observer might conclude it would be better to find a means to stop government oppressing their own people so they did not have to flee and become refugees.

But we have not figured out yet how to do that. The Security Council has failed us.

Constant as these humanitarian disasters induced by Government policies have been, they will be nothing compared to the disruptions that climate change will wreek upon the peoples of this planet.

Rising sea levels will displace people all over the world, Bangladesh will be terribly affected.

Places like the Maldives, Kiribaiti, Tuvalu and the Marshall Ialands will likely become uninhabitable.

These cultures will be lost and their people driven out.

As a world we have yet to address the serious refugee problems that will result from climate change.

All nations are vulnerable to climate change but some are more vulnerable than others.

We will have extreme weather conditions, rain, slips and heat waves.

There will be flooding and tidal inundation.

Marine pollution and erosion of coastlines will occur.

Coral reefs and their ecosystems will be adversely affected.

The economic consequences will be serious.

New Zealand needs to up its game on the refugee issue.

Our present policy needs to take a quantum leap forward.

We need to examine our humanitarian soul and do better.

Our customary annual refugee quota has been 750 refugees per year.

We have taken more in special circumstances when they arise, such as an increased emergency quota in the case of Syria.

In an abundance of caution the then Minister of Immigration Michael Woodhouse announced in 2016 the Government would increase the size of the quota from 750 to 1000.

But that would not take place until 2018.

It would cost the New Zealand taxpayer, the Minister said, an extra $25 million.

It is true New Zealand does a relatively good job in assisting with resettlement of those we do take.

And to increase the quota will cost.

But our present approach is insufficient to meet the needs which are massive and will increase.

We need to double the quota.

We should take 1,500 per year.

I fervently hope the newly installed Labour led Government will do that.

We need to be more generous.

I was one of four former Prime Ministers who urged action in this area in July.

There was no response from the then Government when the former Prime Ministers said the quota should be increased by 500.

I no longer think that number is enough.

We should double the quota.

It is of course easy to make speeches calling for change when one no longer has the responsibility for making it happen.

But this should happen and I hope it will.

I have great pleasure in declaring the exhibition open.