Branko Marcetic: Let’s take our fair share of Ukrainian refugees

Branko Marcetic: Let’s take our fair share of Ukrainian refugees

New Zealanders are looking for ways to help the people of Ukraine. Branko Marcetic argues that we can easily afford to take a special category of Ukrainian refugees on top of our normal quota, and in fact we would be enriched as a country by their arrival here.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has quite rightly elicited shock and horror among New Zealanders, who wonder what, beyond symbolic pledges of sympathy and solidarity, they can do about the suffering of ordinary Ukrainians.

Some ideas have been reckless and foolish. As a prime example, ACT leader David Seymour wants the government to send weapons to Ukraine, a move that would potentially entangle New Zealand in a war that continues to teeter closer to the edge of a nuclear exchange than any in my lifetime.

Others have been more sensible. Given our country’s size, one of the most effective and direct ways with the least risk of blowback that New Zealand can help Ukraine is through the immigration system. The Government has already gone some way towards this, opening up 4,000 spaces for family members of Ukrainian-born Kiwis to get two-year visas to “shelter” here. It’s a significant step. But is it really all we can do?

Not everyone thinks so. NZ Ukraine Action has called on the government to open up a special Ukrainian refugee category, on top of the shamefully low quota of 1,500 refugees we take in each year. Anu Kaloti of the Migrant Workers Association thinks it should prompt us to finally raise this number, which puts us 95th in the world in terms of accepting refugees, and points out that turning war-fleeing Ukrainians into a special visa category means they won’t be helped the same way that officially designated refugees usually would. “Someone impacted by a war-torn zone surely should be treated as a refugee,” she says.

These ideas make sense. They are, above everything else, simply the right thing to do. The Russian invasion has already displaced 6.5 million people and led more than 3 million to flee the country under shelling. There’s a good chance that, unless a ceasefire is reached soon, Moscow will resort to even more brutal and indiscriminate methods to achieve its war aims. If our own country was, God forbid, invaded and our cities reduced to rubble, would we really accept foreign excuses that, sorry, there was simply no more room for us?

But if the urgent moral need isn’t enough to convince you, then it’s also worth thinking about the practical benefits of doing this. New Zealand is still suffering from a labour shortage where, with the border shut for three years to keep Covid out, employers have struggled to fill positions, particularly ones that call for workers that are “highly skilled” — a misnomer that in reality refers to workers with highly specialised work experience or education.

A country with as small a population as New Zealand relies on a large pool of migrant labour to meet its needs, particularly in some of its more specialised industries, which it may not produce enough workers by itself to fulfil. That’s not even to get into the ticking time bomb of our ageing population, with more than a quarter of the country set to be older than 65 by 2050, putting serious pressure on our social safety net and health sector as birth rates sink lower and lower.

Letting in more Ukrainian refugees lets us kill two birds with one stone, by both giving an outstretched hand to people in desperate need, and proactively dealing with these labour force and demographic problems. In the last year we have figures for it, in 2014, Ukraine had a tertiary gross enrolment ratio of just under 83 percent, putting it above countries like Canada, France, and Germany, and roughly on par with Denmark, Norway, and ourselves. Ukrainian universities are of a high enough standard that they’re viewed as a gateway to the rest of Europe and the developed world, particularly when it comes to studying medicine, which is why the country had so many foreign students when this war was launched.

According to a 2019 labour force report by Ukraine’s State Statistics Service, the country had 1.7 million physical, mathematical and engineering science professionals, 1.5 million in technical experts in the field of applied science and technology, more than 1 million metallurgical and mechanical engineering workers, 877,000 specialists in biology, agronomy and medicine, and more than a million teaching professionals, to name few. Many of them happen to be young people: roughly a third of the country’s professionals, experts and skilled workers each fall in the 15-34 age range. For years, this educated workforce has been critical to the global tech economy.

There’s no guarantee this will be the educational and professional breakdown of the Ukrainian refugees New Zealand accepts, nor should that be how we decide who’s deserving of our help. Instead, all of this is to say that even those unmoved by the desperate plight of a war-ravaged country should at least be motivated by the economic and national interest involved in accepting these refugees.

And if we’re persuaded by this, we need to apply this thinking beyond Ukraine. As we’ve seen in both New Zealand and other Western countries, the war has exposed a stunning double standard around how we think of and treat desperate people who happen to be Europeans, and when those people happen to come from societies and cultures less immediately recognisable to us. Afghan migrants don’t have the chance to bring their loved ones over, despite the theft and economic strangulation creating an unspeakable humanitarian crisis in their home country. Yemenis don’t have a special immigration category despite the now seven-year-long war of aggression against them. Neither do Ethiopians, Rohingya Muslims, Palestinians, and so many others.

It’s a cliché to say immigrants helped build New Zealand, but it’s also true. Welcoming people from every corner of the world has enriched our culture, strengthened our economy, and fostered a national community that, for the long road of progress it still has to travel, exhibits remarkable tolerance and social cohesion compared to much of the rest of the world. If we keep our spirit of generosity, one day these new arrivals may well also prove the backbone of a shared economic security, the life-givers to our fading provincial towns, and a reminder that we do have the moral tenacity to step up and meet the righteous pleas of history with our actions, not just our words.


Branko Marcetic is co-host of the podcast 1 of 200 and a staff writer for Jacobin magazine

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.