Immigration. It’s one of those things that everyone seems to have an opinion about – and a pretty strong one at that. With record migration in Aotearoa and an election coming up, it’s highly likely that we’ll see more and more headlines about the issue over the next few months.
But while the words of political party leaders are parsed, speculated upon, and analysed, fewer media outlets have focused on what young women think about the immigration debate.
Rebekah Jaung is a medical doctor, researcher and a candidate for the Green Party in Northcote. Based in Auckland and of Korean descent, she says she’s concerned by a rise in racist rhetoric.
“New Zealand has always prided itself on being progressive, rational and fair,” she says.
“Therefore I am dismayed that the racist rhetoric that gained traction in the UK and US is being employed in the immigration debate here. One in four New Zealanders was born overseas, but the hatred incited by this debate is almost always directed at migrants who look non-European.
“I grew up in an immigrant community and have experienced first-hand the struggles that come along with the decision to move to a new country and the hopes and aspirations that people have when they come to New Zealand. I think that the way the immigration debate is being conducted has been hurtful to this huge section of the population who actively chose to call New Zealand home and disregards the significant contribution that migrant communities make in all segments of our society.”
Ghazaleh Gol has lived in New Zealand since she emigrated with her family from Iran in 1987. She says the immigration debate feels similar to her as it has been for a long time. “I feel like it's a debate that is infinite and has been ongoing for years,” she says.
“It doesn't feel new to me perhaps because as an immigrant I've always been aware of the anti-immigrant rhetoric – whether it's when I have been living in NZ or overseas.”
Jaung adds she’s also worried about immigrants being scapegoated.
“Certain politicians have accused migrants of ‘clogging up the roads’ or have spoken about the need to ‘turn off the tap,’” she explains.
“I don’t think people who use such dehumanising language to describe New Zealanders can be trusted to make effective and compassionate decisions about our immigration process. Furthermore, blaming migrants for our failing infrastructure deflects our attention away from the people who have done a poor job of planning for the future needs of our country.
“That said, immigration is an issue that many people here are interested in and there are ways in which our current immigration policy could be reviewed and improved. I just think it needs to be done in a way which reflects our values and humanity, as part of a long-term plan for New Zealand, rather than a knee-jerk election year response.”
Gol’s suggestion is to focus in more on the granular. “I think we need to single out certain issues and not lump everything in as an ‘immigration issue,’” she says.
“For example I believe most immigrants who move permanently to NZ are actually from the UK yet they are not a group that is often targeted against. I think race, ethnicity and religion are still factors that govern the issue. When people say they want immigration stopped, they often mean from certain regions or groups of people. It feels more like a bigoted slant than anything else.
“However, I do believe in restricting certain liberties such as home ownership and supporting NZ residents and citizens in that area over international buyers/investors. I also think we need to continue supporting and encouraging overseas students to study in NZ, as this helps our own academic institutions and the domestic students studying there (both in terms of experience and costs).”
Both Jaung and Gol agree that Aotearoa could take in more refugees. Jaung cites an especially surprising statistic.
“On a per capita basis, we take in fewer refugees than Trump’s America. I don’t think we can maintain our pride in being a little country that does a lot if we continue to shirk our responsibilities as global citizens.”
Gol believes that perceptions about refugees need to be challenged.
“There are a lot of misconceptions about refugees and asylum seekers,” she says.
“Firstly, to become an official refugee people have to register and wait for years (often in a camp) whilst they are vetted and then determined on where to go. Refugees do not choose which country to be resettled in.
“Asylum seekers are people who often cannot wait or endure the vetting and waiting of the refugee list and take often-treacherous illegal journeys on their own to set destinations. It's almost impossible to come to NZ as an asylum seeker based on our isolation and geography. In fact, certain airlines will not allow people on board in overseas ports. We have the capacity and resources to help those who are in desperate need.”
If she had a magic wand and could create a new immigration policy, Jaung says there are a few things she’d change about the current system.
“My ideal immigration policy would give priority to people who want to settle here, rather than those who come here primarily as investors,” she explains.
“The former group bring social capital which we need as much as the financial kind. My policy would ensure that migrants were treated fairly and with respect throughout the process, and close gaps in the legislation that make it easy for employers and others in the immigration industry to exploit them. I would like to give new migrants the best chance of participating and thriving in New Zealand.”
And what would Gol do if she also had a magic wand?
“I think our first port of call is to educate people and to stop this fear-mongering that the right-wing political sphere constantly tries to perpetuate,” she says.
“I think our policies tend to favour those with money and power as with other policies that come from the centre-right, so this needs to change so that we can include those less fortunate and those most vulnerable.
“It is not us versus them. It is not just our or ‘my’ country. Particularly as New Zealanders, we are all immigrants or descendants from immigrants.”
That’s what two young women are saying about the immigration debate. We can only hope that, no matter what party wins the election or what policies are enacted, that their views and the views of other young women are taken into consideration. After all, that’s what democracy is all about.