Who are refugees?

At Red Cross, we're often asked about where refugees come from, how they're selected, and why we believe there's a place for them here. Read our most commonly asked questions about refugees.

Who is a refugee?

Refugees are ordinary people facing extraordinary conditions. They have experienced war, persecution, discrimination, racism and oppression.  They've been forced to flee from their homeland because of nothing more than their ethnicity, religion or beliefs. Refugees have been denied basic human rights in their country of origin and are unable to safely return home.

For a formal definition, the 1951 Refugee Convention describes a refugee as someone who "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country."

What is the difference between migrants and refugees?

Migrants make the decision to move based on choice. They choose to move to better their circumstances, and are able to decide where they will migrate to.

Refugees on the other hand, have no choice. They are forced to leave their homes due to fears of violence and persecution. Once they have left, they have little control over where they end up. This is instead determined by the UNHCR and refugee-accepting states.

Where do refugees come from?

Refugees are escaping conflict in nearly every continent on earth. Displaced people from Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia, the three largest countries where refugees come from, make up 53% of displaced people worldwide.

While we are pleased to welcome 600 Syrian refugees to New Zealand under the emergency quota, it’s important to remember those who remain displaced in Syria, as well as refugees seeking safety all over the world.

Last year New Zealand welcomed former refugees from twenty one different countries. We celebrate the diversity and cultural contributions they offer our communities.

How are refugees selected to come to New Zealand?

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is the international organisation responsible for protecting refugees and seeking durable solutions for them. UNHCR decides which refugees are in the greatest need of resettlement and asks resettlement countries to consider accepting them. Immigration New Zealand then makes the final decision about who will be included in the quota.

How can we be sure the refugees we accept are safe?

All refugees who arrive under the quota have undergone an initial security check conducted by the UNHCR, then a more in depth check conducted by Immigration New Zealand. Because New Zealand determines when refugees arrive in the country, we have the time and resources to do very thorough security checks.

How are refugee resettlement areas selected? Why aren’t any refugees being resettled in my town?

Refugee resettlement areas are decided by Immigration New Zealand as well as where each refugee is resettled. Their decisions are based on the capacity and available resources to receive refugees such as available housing, ethnic communities already present and local NGOs/services available.

Shouldn’t we take care of our own people before taking care of others?

We believe both can be done at the same time. We are already helping people throughout New Zealand with our support programmes and services in the community including Meals on Wheels, Community Transport, first aid in schools, emergency management, as well as our refugee programmes.  We've been active in helping all New Zealanders for 100 years and we don’t want to stop now.

New Zealand has 70 years of history and experience with refugee resettlement, having refugees who have resettled, integrated and contributed positively to their community. It is important to appreciate the contribution we receive from former refugees who often want to ‘give back to the community’ and support their fellow New Zealanders.

Red Cross’ core mission is to improve the lives of vulnerable people by mobilising the power of humanity and enhancing community resilience. This means we are helping people in need, whoever and wherever they are, in New Zealand and overseas.

Why don’t countries closer to the problems help refugees?

Because only 26 countries ‘formally’ accept refugees via a quota system, there is a common misconception that these are the only ones helping. However, this could not be further from the truth. In fact, the vast majority of refugees are hosted in states that do not have a formal acceptance system like ours.

As we have seen in the Syrian crisis, neighbouring states like Lebanon and Turkey have absorbed large numbers of refugees. In Lebanon, there are now over 1 million Syrian refugees, comprising a quarter of the country’s total population. In Turkey, this number is as high as 2.1 million.

We believe that every country has an equal responsibility to help refugees. Though New Zealand is isolated, we do not exist in a vacuum. Events happening overseas affect us too and as such, we must take appropriate action.

Find out more

Find out how you can help support refugees settle into New Zealand

Get to know former refugees living in New Zealand

Find out more about our position on the refugee quota