NZ can help people fleeing Gaza with emergency family reunification – will the government act?

In the looming shadow of a threatened Israeli invasion of Rafah at the onset of Ramadan, New Zealand has the opportunity to extend a lifeline to families trapped in the middle of the war in Gaza.


  • Jay Marlowe

    Professor, Co-Director Centre for Asia Pacific Refugee Studies, University of Auckland, Waipapa Taumata Rau

The dire humanitarian situation has been well-documented: more than 30,000 lives lost, nearly a fifth of buildings destroyed, countless people injured and lacking basic necessities.

Estimates from Palestinian New Zealanders put the number of Gazans with a family connection to New Zealand at approximately 400. Some 40 Palestinian families have already committed to hosting family members trapped in Gaza.

Given New Zealand’s previous responses in similar refugee crises, such family-focused assistance would be possible. The government has yet to commit to an intake. But last December, the immigration minister acknowledged an openness to adjusting the response in light of the escalating conflict. Now is the time to make such adjustments.

Previous examples include the family reunification pathways created for Ukrainian nationals in 2022, and the intake of 200 human rights activists and 1,533 people from Afghanistan after the Taliban returned in 2021.

Further back, previous National or National-led governments have accommodated such intakes: 600 extra places were made available to Syrians when John Key was prime minister, 600 family places were offered to people in Kosovo when Jenny Shipley was in power.

Despite initial estimates of about 4,000 eligible Ukrainian family members, fewer than 1,000 have actually arrived in New Zealand. And it may be that only a fraction of the eligible Palestinians in Gaza would take up the offer. But acting quickly and giving those people a choice should be the priority right now.

Practical compassion

Getting out of Gaza, of course, is not easy. Gazans given a visa to join family in Canada, for example, have been struggling to exit at the Egyptian border.

Infrastructure is seriously damaged, making it difficult to communicate and determine where people are located. Social media platform WhatsApp is often the only way to connect with family trapped in Gaza.

Furthermore, issuing visas will not be enough. There needs to be robust consular assistance to get people out whenever possible. For such an intake to work, it would likely need coordination across diplomatic channels, with potential assistance from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the UN Relief and Works Agency and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

There is also the question of how to support family members once they arrive, albeit with a vibrant Palestinian community ready to welcome them.

However, as someone who specialises in refugee issues, I work with a team that has looked into the benefits of functioning family reunification pathways. The data is clear that a united family means better settlement outcomes, both for those who arrive and those who receive them.

Beyond the emotional and psychological benefits, reunified families show higher levels of economic participation and educational enrolment, challenging often misguided assumptions about the strain on host countries’ resources.

Better systems needed

The humanitarian imperative of such a programme can’t be overstated. More than seven decades of political unrest and conflict – 15 wars, five since 2008 – has left countless families in Gaza fragmented and grappling with endless uncertainty.

Even if there’s a temporary ceasefire, given the scale of devastation and time needed for reconstruction, options to resettle families will be needed.

New Zealand’s normal annual commitment to taking in 600 family members in the Refugee Family Support Category reflects the importance of family bonds in the resettlement process.

However, the existing system has real limitations: lengthy processes – including a ten-year backlog – and narrow inclusion criteria. This means a more immediate and flexible approach is required. This is where emergency family intakes can play a pivotal role.

Lessons from the wars in Afghanistan, Ukraine and now Gaza should lead to a more formal and practical pathway for New Zealanders to sponsor families in war zones. Rather than the current case-by-case approach (often at ministerial discretion), an ongoing annual commitment to family reunification in acute crises should be considered.

This would also avoid the discrepancies of helping Ukrainian families, for example, but being silent on other less prominent crises.

Matching what others are doing

While the situation in Gaza is making headlines, there are other largely forgotten wars where New Zealand could also step up to protect families. In Myanmar, Sudan, Cameroon and Ethiopia, for example, there are immediate risks to lives and an urgent need for assistance.

By instituting a formalised system of emergency family intake, New Zealand would not only honour its commitments to human rights principles, it would also match initiatives already taken by Australia and Canada.

As one resettled refugee in New Zealand put it: “When elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled.”

Establishing a fair and functional pathway to protect those families with connections to New Zealand aligns with the country’s commitment to upholding human rights on the global stage.

The Conversation

Jay Marlowe receives funding from Te Apārangi Royal Society New Zealand as a current Rutherford Discovery Fellow.

/Courtesy of The Conversation. View in full here.