Refugee support staff face redundancy

Red Cross and Immigration New Zealand staff supporting refugees at the country's main resettlement centre will lose their jobs in a major shake-up aimed at improving services and saving money.

The Sunday Star-Times can reveal that numerous jobs will be disestablished and key positions contracted out to the private sector under a controversial restructuring of refugee resettlement services by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE).

The Public Service Association, which represented Immigration NZ workers at the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre in South Auckland, says changes will have an adverse effect on refugees as staff experienced in handling their unique requirements are let go.

Among those set for the chop are refugees taken on as "residential assistants" at Mangere, who do everything from cleaning and maintenance to teaching new refugees basic hygiene, as well as more senior residential officers.

"These are people with a lot of skill and experience working with new refugees who often arrive traumatised and dislocated. They've built up expertise in working with them, it's a system that's working well and we don't see the logic for outsourcing it," said PSA national secretary Brenda Pilott.

She said the proposal was for 29 positions to be disestablished and 15 new ones created. Pilott said the union had suggested efficiency improvements but it was understood the decision had already been made to proceed. Staff were angry at the way the changes had been dropped on them during a PowerPoint presentation.

Meanwhile, the Red Cross has lost the contract to provide planning and social support for refugees during their six-week orientation programme at Mangere and will pull out next month.

The organisation would also no longer be responsible for finding new housing and furniture for refugees around the country, but would continue to provide support services to refugees once they were settled in the community, national refugee services manager Molly Kennedy said.

Affected staff had been told their roles would finish but it was unclear how many would be absorbed back into the organisation and how many let go.

The Government put the refugee settlement services out for tender for the first time last year.

The Star-Times understands the Red Cross's tender was not considered low enough.

Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse said the changes were part of the Government's refugee resettlement strategy, which had been commended by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees as "world leading".

The Government had committed an extra $5.6 million in the budget to help "improve settlement outcomes and employment prospects" for refugees and would rebuild the Mangere centre.

It is expected that the Mangere centre would be used to detain any "mass arrivals" (30 or more) of boat people who manage to make it here.

An MBIE spokesperson said a cross-government working group had reviewed the refugee reception programme at Mangere and was to provide a greater emphasis on employment and living in the community.

Submissions on the proposals by Immigration NZ staff show the depth of feeling to the changes.

One submission said the residential team at Mangere dealt with everything from domestic violence and fights between ethnic groups to taking sick refugees to hospital. They also met refugees at Auckland Airport when they first arrived and believed the refugees' first point of contact should be with immigration staff, "not someone employed by a contractor".

"We feel management have not taken seriously into consideration the real price of going this way," the submission said.

"We feel the cost-saving measures . . . will be at a huge cost to the quality service currently provided by highly experienced and zealous [staff]."

The shake-up of refugee services has concerned even some within National, with Nelson MP Nick Smith saying changes in his region, including three redundancies of people working with refugees, were "of concern".

He planned to take his concerns to the ministers involved.

The resettlement strategy applies only to services for refugees who come as part of the annual quota of 750.

Asylum seekers who make their own way here have to fend for themselves, and the Government has now cut all funding to the Auckland Refugee Council, which provides the country's only asylum seeker hostel.

Executive officer Marian Kleist said the council was dipping into reserves and would have to close the hostel if it did not find new income sources.

"Ironically it doesn't stop Immigration NZ referring people to our service," she said.

She said it felt like New Zealand was following Australia's "inhumane" approach towards asylum seekers.

Sunday Star Times