SYDNEY - Human rights advocates have urged lawmakers in New Zealand to drop regulations preventing the resettlement of refugees from Africa and the Middle East unless they already have family members living in the country.
The measures were introduced by the previous center-right government in 2010, due in part to security concerns as New Zealand focused on facilitating immigration from Asia.
Campaigners say the policy is discriminatory and undermines the integrity of a nation that has been praised for its response to deadly mosque attacks in March, when a lone gunman murdered 51 people and wounded dozens more in the city of Christchurch. Refugees from Syria and Somalia were among the victims.
Rights groups have filed a petition on the so-called "family link" immigration rules for Middle Eastern and African refugees to a parliamentary committee, which is reviewing the measures.
Some lawmakers said the regulations are racist, but New Zealand's deputy prime minister, Winston Peters, disagreed.
"Well, it is hardly racist," he told TVNZ. "How could it possibly be racist when all the ones coming in are brown or black? How could that possibly be racist? None of these refugee countries have said that New Zealand is racist. That is why they are queuing up to come here — because we are not."
The current immigration policy does not apply to people who apply for asylum in New Zealand, although the isolated South Pacific island nation has few migrants seeking asylum compared to other developed countries.
The government in Wellington has announced plans to increase by 500 the number of refugees it takes in each year, to 1,500, beginning in the year 2020.
New Zealand has a population of about 4.7 million people.