Home About

Borderline Cases

Mel Downer



How our Government and Immigration New Zealand neglect refugee needs
Last week Immigration Minister David Cunliffe detailed a new Immigration Bill, describing it as the biggest rewrite of immigration law for two decades. While those changes include streamlining visas, revamping the appeals system and tightening security measures, Salient volunteer writer Mel Downer draws upon her experiences as a refugee lawyer for Wellington’s community law center to highlight issues beyond the legislation, that Immigration NZ refuse to address.

Newtown, to use the metaphor of a melting pot, could be near boiling. Even before getting to the New World supermarket, I notice a more prominent African, Iraqi and South-East Asian population than there used to be. While walking down Riddiford Street for the past six years, I’ve bumped into a myriad of refugees – some of them known to me through my work as a refugee lawyer, and others unknown. Walking through these streets, I’ve often wondered: How is New Zealand going to look in a decade or so?
New Zealand, in international terms, does a bloody good job of accepting refugees. Per capita, we’re streets ahead of the EU nations or Canada. Having a small population certainly helps. Each year, New Zealand accepts 750 refugees. They’re picked by UNHCR (United National High Commissioner for Refugees) as the most deserving out of the 78,000 people in the world – essentially, those whose circumstances will never find a decent chance of repatriation. These guys have no choice but to be resettled somewhere. And these 78,000 are just the tip of a 20.8 million iceberg that exists at any given moment – an iceberg made up of individuals whom the UNHCR describe as “people of concern”.
These are the Iraqis, the people who have flooded out of Iraq, Afghanistan, East Africa (Ethiopia, Sudan, Eritrea, Somalia) and Cambodia. You could think of the top “visible bit” being 8.4 million registered refugees and, below that, 6.6 million internally displaced persons, 4 million stateless persons and 1 million in the process of being sent back home, once the region is secure. More or less a medium-sized country’s worth of people may spend five, ten or twenty years – and some their entire lives – in a holding pattern; never being able to pin down exactly where they belong or having any sense of choice in life.
I mentioned that New Zealand accepts 750 refugees a year, but last year we didn’t quite meet this target. The Refugee Quota Branch in Auckland had too much trouble getting a number of them into New Zealand, for a whole range of reasons. There was a struggle to arrange exit visas, which is generally code for the host country getting bolshy about the future of citizens not of its own, or other countries, en route, doing the same. Not that it wasn’t already, but this post 9/11 society is now even more anal when it comes to the movement of individuals and state sovereignty.
New Zealand, despite our slightly miniscule quota in the face of 50,000 refugees accepted annually by the US, takes on a proportionally massive number of cases with high and complex needs – including women, medical and disablity-related cases – alone. This means that many of our former refugees have experienced extreme degrees of trauma. There are many young, single men without support structures or families, but also a cluster who are well qualified – and dead keen to practise in their field – if only New Zealand would accept their qualifications.
An example of this is Abdollatullah (name changed to protect privacy), a young Afghani refugee living in Mt Cook, who could be laying carpet at your flat. He was tortured for such a long period by the Taleban that, at times, he physically disassociates from his body when asked too many direct questions. At night he is paralysed by nightmares of bugs and animals crawling over him, from the weeks he spent hiding in caves while escaping to Iran. When I asked Abdollatullah (through a translator) how his family is doing, he explained: “I can’t ring my mother on the one phone in their village – mother’s neighbours will discover I am alive and got out [of Afghanistan]. They will persecute her. I can’t ring my Dad. I don’t know where he is. He might have got to Iran, I don’t know. Every day I wonder if I will ever see them again. I tell myself I will.” As a result, after four years in this country, Abdollatullah’s family do not even know he is alive. He thought he was told by Immigration, while interviewed in Nauru, that his family would be brought to New Zealand too. Apparently, he misunderstood. That’s a whole lot of guilt and trauma for a 25-year-old to carry around.
As you can see, this is where the shining image of New Zealand’s immigration policy gets a bit muddied. At the risk of being inflammatory, it can be said that, in some respects, New Zealand’s good record regarding refugees ends on our front doorstep. Well, maybe a little bit into the hallway. The New Zealand Government initially receives refugees at the Refugee Reception Centre for a short initial orientation period, partnering with RMS Refugee Resettlement, who are contracted to assist refugees settle in for their first six months in New Zealand. I don’t know if you’ve ever spent time in a country where you don’t speak the language but, when I visited Thailand, it took me almost three months to even become capable of buying myself lunch. It’s stressful and confusing. Even more so for the refugees, who are suddenly landed in a place that not only they didn’t choose, but have to make into something resembling a home. As cosmopolitan as Newtown may be, it’s just nothing like Addis Ababa or Kabul.
The take-home point I wish to stress is that care for the refugees New Zealand accepts must continue beyond this initial six-month period. To the extent that we take refugees in but don’t provide sufficient trauma counselling and social work support; help with employment; schooling or opportunities for reunification with key family members; the Government and our populus is failing in our humanitarian task. It’s akin to saying: “Here’s your Golden Ticket, we hope you survive the Chocolate Factory.” In this regard, we neglect refugee needs across the board. I’d specifically like to focus on the process of family reunification and residence applications for immediate families.
My own frustration with New Zealand’s attitude towards the needs of resettled refugees arises from assisting a number of refugees with family reunification, through a legal advice service provided by the Wellington Community Law Centre. And what a sad and disturbing business it is.
There’s a presumption that when one arrives as a refugee in Mangere, one’s spouse and dependent children should be able to come. On the whole, this is managed well by the New Zealand Government: provided people are upfront about their family situation, there aren’t too many problems. But for those whose family arrangements are more complicated, or for those who have adult siblings, or care for their parents, the complete dearth of opportunities for family reunification becomes absolutely crippling.
Take the situation of one of my Ethiopian clients, Demere. He lives in Strathmore with his wife and child. He’s the eldest of a family of six children, split apart by ethnic conflict when he was a teenager. His father and younger brother were killed in fighting. He and another brother lived with an uncle, who came to New Zealand with them. For a while, he wasn’t sure if his mother and younger sister were alive, but he managed to trace them – via the Red Cross – and found they were living in Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya with 70,000 other refugees. And that’s just one in a string of refugee camps along that road. Demere’s mother had died recently from TB, but he was reassured that his sister, Askalu, had a husband to look after her. Then came the news that Askalu’s husband died from TB, also, leaving her alone with three kids. Imagine the stress when you manage to get a call through to your sister, when you learn that she’s worried about being sexually assaulted, not having any food for her kids, and being totally alone. And she begs you to help. You’re the father of the family now, and living in a privileged life in New Zealand. The trouble for Demere is that Askalu has no options under which to apply for residence.
To meet the policy, she would need to get a full-time job offer from a New Zealand employer. I don’t know about you, but it’s hard enough getting a job when you’ve got two degrees and are a local, let alone if you are a non-English speaking mother who has lived almost your entire life in a refugee camp. There aren’t many employers willing to take on someone in that position, even if an interview was possible. In case there was any doubt, under the adult sibling policy, Askalu’s job offer would need to be for more than $42,040 if she has three dependent children. I don’t know how much you get paid, but if university graduates don’t get paid that much, how exactly would Askalu? Essentially, Demere just has to deal with the fact that he is safe, and his sister is not.
Most refugees have fragile mental health, as a result of living their lives in turmoil for decades, or are from recovering from long-term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after witnessing the death of family member. One of my clients, Ahmed, who has probably given you a lift home in his Wellington Combined Taxi, was working as a security guard in the Ethiopian Embassy overseas when he discovered his father, uncle, sister, two brothers and countless friends had been taken to the forest and executed, amidst an Ethiopian Government crackdown on possible associates of the Oromo Liberation Front (an armed self-determination group) in 1999. Ahmed carried on with a straight face for the next four days, not showing a moment’s grief, while admitting that “[he] was dying inside”. He silently organized to get on the next flight to New Zealand, to claim asylum, before the embassy officials found out and deported him back to Ethiopia, for a similar fate. The deeper you dig into the lives of Wellington’s refugees, the more the intensity of the pain these people have absorbed is truly humbling. It’s all too easy to apportion blame, or simply wash over the reality of darker looking faces on our streets, without stopping to listen to the depth of grief in these people’s stories.
Mental health support services for refugees needs an injection of true support. The services available are vastly lacking. Refugees as Survivors, a Wellington’s refugee counseling service, has a permanent waiting list. It doesn’t take a medical genius to see that ongoing severe depression is inherently tied to separation from vulnerable family members, and the guilt associated with this.
I’d say the bulk of refugees arrive with the mistaken hope that other members of their family will be able to follow shortly. When the reality hits that they will never meet New Zealand residence policy, total psychological breakdowns occur and endure. Since the Government closed the Humanitarian Category in 2001 without warning (an immigration programme allowing family reunification for refugees most in need), there has been a failure to provide a genuine and transparent reunification mechanism for resettled refugees. A ballot system has operated since, offering 300 places – but this has only been open to refugees who are completely alone in New Zealand, and fails to address the wider needs of this group.
If the impossibility of family reunification is the first and insurmountable hurdle for many, for those refugees who do miraculously get pulled from the ballot and find a job offer for a brother or sister, the second minefield is actually even getting them to New Zealand. This is where I wish to hammer home that the New Zealand Government is failing in our stated obligations to support those we resettle.
In 2005, the Government established the Immigration Profiling Group (IPG). This is intended to be a specialist group within Immigration New Zealand which is responsible for processing all applications from countries designated “high risk”. The result is that all applications for family members from refugee-source countries are processed by this group.
While the Immigration New Zealand timeframe for the processing of applications is between six and 18 months, most residence applications are taking two to three years, if not longer, to be determined. Ask my client Meruna: she’s been waiting since mid-2004 for her fiancee’s application to be decided. As of this month, if a refugee or some migrants submit an application for a brother or sister to come to New Zealand, it will take 12 months for someone at Immigration to even look at it. Is Meruna a terrorist?
Have she done something wrong? The answer is no. But, according to Immigration, it’s just administrative backlog. A pressured Government Department. Busy case officers. Why does this matter? The negative impact on the health and wellbeing of former refugees, who may then be separated from their partner or significant family members for several years, cannot be highlighted enough. Some even become suicidal, something I can vouch for personally. You don’t need to be a clinical psychologist to realise that putting someone through a two to three year ordeal before their spouse can come will not make for well-settled and productive refugees.
While Immigration Minister David Cunliffe is aware of the operational issues raised in this article, little is being done in the high level framework of the immigration system. Until these issues reach public awareness, there will be little movement.
On a personal note – if you are interested in making a difference, you can volunteer with RMS or the Community Law Centre. You can vote for a party in next November’s election who will support refugees, and other New Zealanders, with painful histories. Some of you reading this will end up working for Immigration. More than one of you will become an MP. You will be lawyers, public servants and teachers. I challenge you to push our Government and community to truly support and welcome these people into our country. And for those of you who earn wads of cash, consider donating some of it to Wellington’s Refugee Family Reunification Trust. If not for any other reason, do it because when these refugees are happy and cared for, they will also make New Zealand a better place to live for us all.