The New Lynn mall terror attack in west Auckland on Friday last week that left five people in hospital and the perpetrator shot dead underscores how isolation and a lack of belonging can create fertile ground for extremist ideas to take root.
As the public conversation moves from descriptions of the event to suggestions of what comes next, we also need to consider why he became so isolated. While the details of this individual continue to be released, the larger context about how people seek asylum, and how they are treated, warrant consideration.
We have been researching how refugees find a sense of belonging in their new homes, while also staying connected to the cultures they’ve come from, for over a decade. Our research, and that of many others, concludes that creating a sense of belonging is critical to positive settlement outcomes. It is also arguably a potent counterbalance to extremist ideologies accessible via social media.
One of the biggest challenges for good settlement experiences is that some refugees receive comprehensive support while others are left with next to nothing. This unequal treatment is based on how refugees arrive in New Zealand.
One way of coming here is through the refugee quota, whereby the government settles up to 1,500 people granted refugee status offshore on an annual basis. These people are referred to as “quota refugees”.
People who apply for refugee status within New Zealand are referred to as asylum seekers because they hope to apply under the 1951 UN Convention to attain refugee status. If they’re successful, they can remain in New Zealand and are then referred to as “convention refugees”.
International law gives them the same rights, but New Zealand’s policies mean that convention refugees receive far less support than their quota counterparts.
Quota refugees get a five-week orientation at Auckland’s Māngere resettlement reception centre and support for health, work, housing, education, social welfare assistance and other services in the various locations across New Zealand where they’re settled. A volunteer training programme run by the Red Cross connects Kiwis to newly arrived people to help them settle in. Much of this is support is through the refugee resettlement strategy that was implemented in 2013.
By contrast, convention refugees receive minimal support and are excluded from the refugee resettlement strategy during these critical early years.
Senior officials have been quoted for nearly a decade as saying that an aspiration of the refugee resettlement strategy is to – eventually – include convention refugees. Nearly a decade later, these statements largely ring hollow.
Our current policies create a division between so-called “deserving” and “undeserving” refugees and create confusion as to who is eligible for support, which means some people slip through the cracks. There are better ways to support them, and we know this because those ways are already in action with those who come through the refugee quota.
New Zealand’s resettlement approach, while not without flaws, is seen as an example of good practice. The problem at present is that, although all refugees share a similar protection need, it only supports some of them.
We find it encouraging that political parties across the spectrum acknowledge that this terror attack represented the actions of an individual and did not reflect a larger group. Yes, this man was from a refugee background and had a traumatic past, but this attack should not be used to label and stigmatise refugees, asylum seekers or other social groups.
We need to remember that asylum seekers and refugees are individuals who are protected under international law, and come to New Zealand with acute protection needs, including support to address previous trauma. In no way should we take this current event as an opportunity to forgo the necessary checks and balances that are part of ensuring that we’re not sending people back into the hands of their persecutors.
Despite the unprecedented global crisis of the more than 82 million people forcibly displaced by conflict, there are many examples of countries building walls, strewing barbed wire along borders and legislating to make people’s attempts to cross over and receive recognition more difficult.
We should recognise a refugee as a refugee, regardless of the path they have used to come here. Looking ahead, ensuring that all refugees receive the same rights and entitlements will reduce barriers to integration, go some way towards guarding against hate, and make our society that much safer and more cohesive.
Jay Marlowe is an associate professor and co-director of the Centre for Asia Pacific Refugee Studies at the University of Auckland. Bernard Sama is a PhD student at the Centre, supervised by Marlowe and Dr Anna Hood. He came to New Zealand as an asylum seeker, was formally recognised as a convention refugee, and is the current chair of the board for the Auckland Refugee Council Incorporated (Asylum Seekers Support Trust).