WELLINGTON — New Zealand’s prime minister says his country will continue to accept Burmese refugees, including those currently living in camps along the Thai-Burma border, despite political reforms in Burma since 2011.
In an exclusive interview, John Key told The Irrawaddy that New Zealand would welcome any refugee who has qualified for resettlement according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
“As long as they’re on the UN list, we’ll take them,” he said. “And in some places like Rakhine [Arakan] State, for instance, there’s obviously a desperate need, so yes, I imagine we’ll continue to take them from Myanmar [Burma].”
The United Nations estimates that more than 86,000 people have attempted to leave western Burma’s Arakan State by boat since 2012, when an outbreak of inter-communal violence left 140,000 people homeless.
For more than a decade, Burmese refugees from camps in Thailand and Malaysia have resettled to New Zealand as part of the UNHCR program. Most were ethnic Karen, Kayah and Chin and had been staying in camps along the Thai-Burma border.
“There are more than 2,000 Burmese living in New Zealand now. Not all are refugees, but most came from the refugees camps,” said Annie Coates, a Karen-Burmese social worker who has lived in Wellington for more than 30 years. “The Karen and Kayah come from camps along the Thai-Burma border, while the Chin and Rakhine [Arakanese] come mostly from camps in Malaysia.”
She said they faced challenges while adjusting to their new lives.
“The language barrier is a major issue,” she said. “I support their education, health and other social needs in times of difficulty, because many of them are young people who do not have any relatives here.”
Key said that despite political and economic reforms under Burmese President Thein Sein’s administration, refugees in New Zealand would never be asked to return home.
“If we take them under the [UNHCR] program, even if there’s a change in the domestic circumstances, we have granted them effectively citizenship in New Zealand, or residency leading to citizenship, so we can’t return them,” he said.
In the past 10 years, New Zealand has approved residency status for 7,473 refugees. Of those, most came from Burma (1,901), Afghanistan (1,237) and Iraq (999).