Whanganui iwi leader Ken Mair calls for Māori to have say in immigration policy decision-making

A Whanganui iwi leader is calling for Māori to always have a say in decision-making processes around immigration policies to ensure their interests are considered

On Monday, RNZ reports a meeting about the resettlement of refugees in Whanganui organised by Immigration New Zealand (INZ) was halted following concerns Māori interests weren't being prioritised.

The resettlement of refugees in the city was announced in February by Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway alongside Whanganui Mayor Hamish McDouall. It came as the Government committed to increase the number and spread of refugee resettlement support services across New Zealand.

"Government agencies, the local council and community groups will all play an important role in welcoming and settling in refugees," Lees-Galloway said at the time.

"We’ve been settling refugees in New Zealand for generations. We have the experience, the resources and the expertise to do our bit and provide a small number of people, displaced by war and disaster, a place to call home."

But Whanganui iwi leader Ken Mair says no strategy for the resettlement has been discussed with local iwi and is calling for the city's infrastructure and housing issues to be dealt to before focussing on refugees.

"There are some serious issues in our town, in our community. Those issues are the serious housing shortage, the escalating rents, the homelessness and also the impact upon our struggling DHB," Mair told The AM Show.

"What astounds us is the fact that when they made this announcement, there was no strategy, no plan, and no discussions with us.

"I would have thought they would have sat down with the people most affected within our community, namely iwi and Māori, and try to put together a strategy with us."

Mair isn't opposed to welcoming refugees fleeing from dangerous countries, but he says the town's issues need to be prioritised.

"Let's get things in order, make sure we do deal with the serious issues within our community, and then let's sit down and have some genuine discussions in regard to how we can support and help those that are fleeing their countries."

He wants Māori to have a seat at the table when Government decides immigration policies.

"I think it is only appropriate that Māori iwi be within the decision-making processes when it comes to the immigration policies of this country."

The AM Show host Duncan Garner questioned why the Māori Party, while part of the previous National Government, didn't do more to ensure Māori voice in immigration policy. 

But Mair defended the party, saying it was difficult for them to make change.

"That level of influence was countered by the fact that we were very small and we couldn't get everything across the line."

Mair isn't the only one with concerns about the resettlement programme. In February, former refugee Ibriham Omer told Newshub Whanganui didn't have the support networks and career opportunities for more refugees. That was criticised at the time by McDouall.

"We have capacity in our education sectors, our health sector; we have a lot of community groups looking forward to welcoming these refugees," McDouall said.

McDouall told RNZ that the housing issue wasn't refugees' fault.

Immigration New Zealand national manager of the refugee division, Andrew Lockhart, told Newshub that INZ believed engagement with iwi was important.

"Iwi provide a valuable contribution to support refugee resettlement around the country," Lockhart said.

"In addition, INZ understands the Minister of Immigration is happy to meet with Te Wai Maori Trust.

"Whanganui was announced as a new settlement location in February this year following an assessment by the cross-government New Zealand Refugee Resettlement Strategy Senior Officials' Group.

"As part of the assessment process for a resettlement location, the Group considered employment opportunities, availability of housing, government services and support provided by local government and the community."

INZ also consulted with McDouall, the Council, and other Government agencies.

The refugees will begin to be settled in Whanganui from April 2020.